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F. W. Murnau: Gay Filmmaker at MAM

Nov. 8, 2016
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Milwaukee Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s,” inevitably offers an LGBT angle. Doing the math of adding Weimar Germany, plus Expressionism, plus cinema, one would expect it to total up to something gay and it does. The sum is in the persona of out gay man and film director F. W. Murnau. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in 1888, he whiled away his youth like any budding gay boy, reading Henrik Ibsen, Shakespeare and Friedrich Nietzsche. Then came World War I. Although it interrupted Murnau’s creative career, he found his niche in the German army, first volunteering as an officer in the elite 1st Guard Infantry Regiment, that, even in its mousy wartime field gray, sported a smart uniform replete with extravagantly embroidered collar braid and matching Brandenburg cuffs.

He then transferred to the glamour of the Kaiser’s air corps. A reconnaissance observer in a two-seater biplane, he crashed no less than eight times, finally ending his wartime escapades by inadvertently landing on a soccer field in neutral Switzerland (well, I’m sure it all looked the same from 18,000 feet). While there interned, he met the artistically inclined Alphons Staehelin-Zahnd and, with his help, like any budding gay theater type would under the circumstances, he put on a show, winning a prize in the process. 

After the war, in 1919, he directed his first film, The Boy in Blue. It’s said Murnau was inspired by the Thomas Gainsborough portrait, Blue Boy, and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. That sounds about right. Unfortunately, but for a few frames, the work is lost. His most famous work of the period is his 1922 masterpiece and the premier of cult films, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. His works won the critics’ acclaim. “His character is one of a quite exceptional sobriety, dignity, greatest Puritanism in the use of decorative effects, bound with a charmingly reserved design of dramatic figures,” fawned one. Still he left Germany and headed to Hollywood where, apart from the more invitingly gay atmosphere, he must have thought he’d find his fame and fortune.

But back to MAM: “Haunted Screens” exhibits numerous period set sketches with many from Murnau works like Faust, Tartuffe, The Last Laugh and his first Hollywood success, Sunrise. Contained within the various film montages, are several from Murnau’s films. Of these, the most dramatic is from his 1926 Faust. In it, Murnau creates a dramatic special effect, a magic carpet-like ride with Mephisto and Faust soaring on the demon’s cloak. The pair swoop over hills, dales, cityscapes and seas and through a flight of cranes. Their wild ride aloft is certainly inspired by Murnau’s wartime flying experiences, but, in this case, the pair land safely.

Meanwhile, I’ve been indulging myself in a Murnau movie marathon. Naturally, one discovers certain shades of gay sensitivity throughout. One example in particular is Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Filmed in Tahiti with a native cast, it won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Sadly, a week before the film’s release, Murnau met his untimely fate in an auto wreck on the Pacific Coast Highway. Apparently his driver was just 14 years old.

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