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Poetry in motion

Powerful images and timeless tales of reality versus dreams mark F.W. Murnau's films.

March 21, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In "Sunrise," F.W. Murnau's 1928 poetic fable of guilt and redemption, the filmmaker transports the audience, via a trolley ride, from the innocent pastoral beauty of the countryside to the city with its bright lights and glittering amusement zone. Murnau captures in striking detail the impact of this world on a farmer (George O'Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) -- the lure of the city ultimately a seductive threat to the couple and their happiness. It remains one of the most striking moments in the silent cinema.

Murnau reverses direction in "City Girl," a 1929 talkie in which a waitress (Mary Duncan) in a busy Chicago cafe imagines that life on a farm would be paradise in contrast to her hardscrabble urban existence with all its noise and pushing and shoving. Yet, as is often the case in Murnau's world, reality collides with the imagined life, in this case as hardship and danger shadow the waitress after she accepts the proposal of a naive Minnesota farmer (Charles Farrell). Murnau makes the heat and sweat of a Chicago summer as palpable as the severe environment of her harsh new life, its people shaped in varying ways by their eternal agrarian struggle with the capricious forces of nature.

As a film, "City Girl" is as obscure as "Sunrise" is famous, even though it reveals Murnau taking the advent of sound in stride without diminishing the pictorial quality of his work. Both films will screen locally in separate events, along with other largely unfamiliar works by Murnau.

On Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has an exhibit of Murnau posters and photos, will screen "Sunrise," a joint restoration project with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The film, which has a synchronized score, brought Gaynor the very first Oscar for her performance and for those in "Seventh Heaven" and "Street Angel" and one for its pioneering cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss.

Indeed, in regard to cinematography, all Murnau films are marked by superbly evocative camerawork and production design -- the city in "Sunrise" is in fact a set -- crucial in creating a magical atmosphere.

Photographed by Ernest Palmer, the dynamic, sweeping "City Girl" screens April 3 as part of LACMA's series "Halo of Dreams: The Films of F.W. Murnau."

The German-born Murnau was a master of Expressionism with its stylized, distorted imagery that so acutely reflected the post-World War I economic and moral chaos of his native country. He was brought to Fox on the wake of his classic "The Last Laugh" (1926) with its unforgettable image of Emil Jannings, so proud in his elaborate gold-braided uniform as the doorman of a grand Berlin hotel, suddenly reduced to a humbled men's room attendant. Murnau had already gained fame with his 1922 "Nosferatu," still the greatest of all the Dracula films. The sight of Max Schreck's cadaverous vampire standing on the deck of a pestilential ship bound for Bremen, where the count's great love resides, remains one of the movie's most indelible images, the embodiment of isolation and loneliness and longing.

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Germany in 1888, Murnau studied art and literature at the University of Heidelberg and became a student and later an actor and assistant director to Max Reinhardt, making his film directorial debut in 1919. Murnau swiftly became part of the Golden Age of German Cinema's great 1920s triumvirate that included G.W. Pabst and Fritz Lang. All three men were deeply responsive to the outburst of artistic experimentation that accompanied and reflected the instability of Germany in the 1920s. As sophisticated Europeans they shared a profound grasp of the psychology of sex.

Murnau was the first to come to Hollywood. He was only 42 when he was killed in an auto accident on March 11, 1931, while traveling from Los Angeles to Monterey. Lang would arrive in 1934 at the behest of David O. Selznick and enjoy two decades of success, whereas Pabst came to Hollywood in 1933 but was able to make only one film, and eventually he returned to Europe. Yet all three would affect the look and themes of Hollywood films, especially with the emergence of the film noir in which Lang would excel.

A haunting experience

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