When the Camera Learned to Fly: F.W. Murnau and the Visual Achievement of Silent Filmmaking


The introduction of sound changed everything in cinema. It drastically altered the manner in which actors performed on screen, making dialogue the focus of their performance instead of physicality. It also reframed the visual grammar of filmmaking. While great silent filmmakers had meticulously crafted a method of storytelling that relied purely on imagery, sound allowed filmmakers to be lazy and create visually drab films that overly relied on sound to charm audiences and tell stories.

Furthermore, while silent filmmakers like D.W. Griffith had invented most of the tools and techniques of filmmaking, first by manipulating the rhythm of editing to broaden the scope of storytelling and then by freeing the burdensome crank camera from its stationary position, the first sound films were content to fix the camera and ease off the complexity of editing. The introduction of sound set formal filmmaking back over a decade. Thus, the silent films of the 1920s represent a peak in visual sophistication that would not be matched in cinema until the arrival of Orson Welles and other Hollywood experimentalists in the 1940s.

While there are many films that represent the visual artistry of the silent era prior to the introduction of sound—Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are chief examples—the films of F.W. Murnau are the era’s peak. Most famously known for Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, the most famous film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau was the greatest filmmaker of the German Golden Age, a period of cinema that existed during the Weimar Republic as a means of changing the perception of German culture following the first World War.

The German Golden Age is remembered most for giving birth to German Expressionism, the movement in cinema most influential to the visual texture of filmmaking. While filmmakers from the Soviet Union changed the way films were edited, German filmmakers changed the way films were shot. As Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin put it in A Short History of the Movies, “As the Soviet films emphasized montage and politics, the German films emphasized mise-en-scène and psychology.” And of these filmmakers who emphasized on-screen space and visual psychology, F.W. Murnau was the master. His films offer a tantalizing glimpse at an alternate kind of cinema, where images alone could convey great psychological and emotional sophistication, drive the narrative, and where sound was never needed—or wanted.

Murnau’s 1922 unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, remains his most popular film—and for good reason. It follows a young German real estate broker, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who leaves his young wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder), and travels to Transylvania to attend to the business of the reclusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who lives in a nightmarish castle filled with denizens of the night. In many ways, it invented the horror film as we conceive of it.

Although the earliest of his masterworks, Nosferatu already shows Murnau building upon the visual vocabulary of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film known for starting the German Expressionism movement. However, unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari where Weine’s crew constructed elaborately skewed sets that visualized the madness of the central characters, in Nosferatu, Murnau conjures nightmare from real life locations. Many of the exterior scenes at Orlok’s castle were filmed at real medieval locations. It’s Murnau’s method of shooting such locations that provides their nightmarish quality. For instance, Murnau uses negative film to shoot trees in the Carpathian countryside or the castle looming over the valley on the edge of the cliff. The negative film reverses the whites and blacks of the shot, so that the silhouettes of the trees end up being white while the sky in the background is looming darkness.

Negative film is not the only special effect Murnau utilizes in Nosferatu’s runtime. He occasionally uses speed-ramping—the method of filming at half-speed so that a scene will play twice as fast when projected. When Hutter arrives on the outskirts of Orlok’s domain, one of Orlok’s servants (or perhaps Orlok himself in disguise—this ambiguity is never clarified in the film) appears in a carriage that races down the road towards Hutter at unnatural speeds. In another scene, Hutter spies on Orlok loading up his carriage with coffins filled with dirt from the Black Plague. Again Murnau uses speed-ramping to exaggerate Orlok’s movements and have him speed about his tasks in fast motion. It creates an unsettling image, playing into Orlok’s supernatural nature, and disquieting the viewer.

Murnau plays with special effects in other moments as well. Midway through the film Orlok is stowed away in a coffin on a ship traveling to his new German home. Men on the ship are becoming ill with the plague and one brave member of the crew thinks to investigate the coffins in the hold. As he hacks at one of the coffins with a hatchet, rats come pouring out—a sickening sight. The horror of the rats is only topped by one of the most famous images in all of silent cinema: the lid lifting from one of the coffins and Nosferatu rigidly rising from within like a post being raised.

However, Nosferatu is not simply a collection of special effects in service of a classical horror story. Murnau’s simple framing throughout is impeccable. For instance, the first conversation between Hutter and his foul real estate boss, Knock (Alexander Granach), is perfectly calibrated to convey meaning without dialogue. And although films of German Expressionism like Nosferatu are best known for their visual texture, the film still demonstrates uncanny use of montage. One scene early in the film intercuts between Orlok advancing on Hutter to lick the wound on his hand and Ellen having a nightmare of the same. Murnau intercuts between the two and frames them as if they’re happening geographically next to each other, with Ellen watching from her bed on one side of the frame, and Hutter and Orlok occupying the opposing side. This sort of match-cutting is a common technique now, but at the time of Nosferatu’s release, it wasn’t so instinctual. It was pioneering work by Murnau, broadening the cinematic space beyond logical confines.

Murnau does a similar thing later in the film during the sinister boat interlude. He cuts between the haunting image of the ship carrying Orlok and his coffins, now bereft of crew, racing across the waters, its sails rocking up and down, with Ellen waiting at her window, her arms outstretched, hypnotized by Orlok’s call. The shot recalls an earlier scene where Ellen waits on the beach for Hutter, looking out to sea and hoping that he’ll return home to her. While at one point the sea promised relief with the return of her beloved, now it brings death in the form of Orlok and his plague. Murnau has created a nightmarish repetition of his early visual conceit, twisting good to bad, dream to nightmare.

All of Nosferatu’s power is purely visual. Murnau rarely uses title cards in Nosferatu, and even when he does, it’s only to clarify something that his visual storytelling has already made abundantly clear. The film is a triumph of imagery. Murnau’s 1924 film, The Last Laugh (or The Last Man), takes this purely visual storytelling to its logical end by removing title cards entirely. The film follows an aging doorman (Emil Jannings) at a posh hotel who takes overwhelming pride in his work. However, due to his age, he’s stripped of his position (and his uniform which he wears proudly like a military get-up) and relegated to the lavatory as an attendant. The doorman then has to deal with loss of dignity and ego, and the film follows his efforts to regain his pride. Every character exchange or emotional motivation is explained through the film’s visuals, never through words. While Nosferatu emphasizes the surrealism of every moment, The Last Laugh remains fixed in the real world, except for during one marvelous fantasy sequence where the doorman imagines his triumphant return to his old position. This fantasy sequence is one of the silent era’s most indelible moments. Murnau’s camera seemingly floats through the air as the doorman tosses around suitcases like they’re juggling balls. The Last Laugh is one of silent cinema’s most assured films and a testament to visual sophistication.

However masterful Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and The Last Laugh are, Murnau’s crowning achievement remains his 1927 film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Acting as a sort of folk tale, Sunrise follows a Man (George O’Brien) living with his Wife (Janet Gaynor) in the countryside. The Man has fallen in love with a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who wants the Man to move with her to town. However, the Man cannot leave his Wife so the Woman from the City convinces him to murder her and cover it up as an accidental drowning, freeing him from his pastoral existence. Sunrise is a film that achieves that elusive feeling of movie magic, where emotion and idea combine to create an almost-mystical experience. However, beyond its mythic storyline, its primary achievements are formal. As film critic is famously known to have Todd Ludy written, “The motion picture camera, for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naivete, had with Sunrise finally learned to fly.”

Sunrise freed the camera from the dictates of reality to the boundless reaches of imagination. It allowed Murnau to realize the fundamental principle of German Expressionism as Mast and Kawin put it: that “The camera, rather than taking the stance of an impartial observer, could itself mirror the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of a character experiencing an event. To use an analogy with the novel, the German filmmaker realized that the camera, like the pen, could narrate a story in the first person as well as the third.” It’s fundamental to understand that in order to achieve this subjective perspective, Sunrise surmounted many of the technical limitations of filmmaking at the time.

In his Great Movies review of the film, Roger Ebert explains that “The cameras employed in the first silent films were lightweight enough to be picked up and carried, but moving them was problematic because they were attached to the cameraman, who was cranking them by hand. Camera movement was rare; the camera would pan from a fixed position. Then came tracking shots—the camera literally mounted on rails, so that it could be moved along parallel to the action. But a camera that was apparently weightless, that could fly, that could move through physical barriers—that kind of dreamlike freedom had to wait until almost the last days of silent film.” Until Sunrise, to be exact. He continues, “And then, when the talkies came and noisy sound cameras had to be sealed in soundproof booths, it was lost again for several years.”

From its earliest moments Sunrise’s visuals are stunning. It is full of intricate, extended dolly shots and superimposing images that create a total reality beyond the rigid storyworld. Early in the film, Murnau executes perhaps the greatest long take in cinematic history. After introducing us to the Man, his Wife, and the Woman from the City who wishes to take him away, Murnau shows the Man going to secretly meet with the Woman from the City by the edge of the lake. The shot begins with the Man in the right side of the frame, the full moon hanging overhead in the top left corner. The Man walks forward and the camera follows him through the mist and across a small creek. It continues through the trees and dollies to the left, passing through a bush and over a small fence that the Man also moves over. It then pans to the left and pushes through the trees, sweeping the branches away as it moves, to reveal the Woman of the City in front of the lake, now occupying the part of the frame the Man did when the shot started, the moon hanging over her to the left. The camera holds on her as she spins a flower, waiting for the Man to arrive, and quickly touches up her makeup when she hears him coming. Finally the Man enters from the left, grabs hold of the Woman from the City, and kisses her passionately. Only then does Murnau cut away, showing the Man’s Wife weeping over her child at home.

This shot remains overwhelming impressive even today, when extended tracking shots are becoming ubiquitous. But to comprehend the level of technical difficulty such a shot required in 1927, when cameras were heavy and had to be continuously cranked by a camera operator, makes the shot even more impressive. It seems to defy the rules of filmmaking. To fly, as Ludy put it. Although this early shot is the film’s most impressive, Murnau utilizes a moving camera throughout. When the Man and his Wife head to the city after he relents from murdering her, the camera follows them through busy streets as they weave between cars. After the Man and his Wife tearfully reconcile after witnessing a marriage within a church, the camera dollies behind them as they move through traffic in each other’s arms, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, oblivious to the chaos they’re creating around them. Later, they head to the carnival and the camera mimics the frenzy of activity surrounding them. In fact, once the two of them reconcile and enjoy the wonders of the city, the camera rarely stops moving.

Murnau doesn’t just revel in the movement of the camera. He also constantly utilizes double exposure or superimposing images to reveal the mental visions of his characters. During the Man and the Woman from the City’s meeting early in the film, she entices him to come to the city, and they look out over the water imagining the wonders of urban life. However, Murnau is not content to allow us to imagine what they are thinking about: he actually shows us. An image of the city superimposes over the lake, its bright lights and dizzying activity overwhelming the quiet gloom of the country. Later, after the Woman from the City has convinced him to murder his Wife, the Man sits at his kitchen table, watching his Wife feed the chickens outside. He’s petrified by guilt, but eventually the image of the Woman from the City appears overtop, as if a ghost, her arms wrapping around his shoulder and caressing him. He turns his head to ignore her, but another image of her appears in front of his eyes, and then images of her surround him until he has no choice but to give in.

If Murnau uses superimposing images to depict when the Man feels lowest, he uses the same technique to show when he feels the best. After him and his Wife are reconciled, they enjoy a drink in the dancehall after wowing the crowd with a dance. They sit cheek to cheek, exhilarated by the music and the emotion and the sensation of the liquor. Murnau frames them in the bottom third and overlays an image of cherubs circling overhead, visualizing the bliss they’re currently feeling. Once again, Murnau is letting us glimpse the workings of their mind, using the camera to narrate the story instead of just document it. Sunrise is a visually splendid film that captures the technical possibility of the pre-sound era. It’s the summation of what could be accomplished before sound rewrote the rules of the game.

The films of F.W. Murnau represent a formal innovation that filmmaking would lose at the advent of the sound era. They achieve seemingly-impossible visual sophistication without sacrificing narrative or character. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans capture the formal and emotional possibilities of filmmaking unreliant on sound to convey story. If filmmaking will always remain a primarily visual medium, then these films represent cinema at its purest and most surprising.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.