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Retrospective probes the psychic labyrinth of German silent filmmaker Murnau


Haunted castles, creepy shadows, a stiffly cloaked vampire, Faust's aerial journey on Mephisto's cloak -- even after eight decades, the images created by the great German expressionist film director F.W. Murnau have lost none of their ability to startle.

A master of light and shadow, Murnau used framing and lighting techniques that were ahead of their time, while displaying an architect's eye for composition. His work not only helped to define the German silent film era but also influenced many of the directors who came after him.

From June 13 to July 6, the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) presents "The Psychic Labyrinth of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau", a retrospective of all 12 of his surviving films. It is the first comprehensive retrospective of Murnau locally in 15 years.

The venues are the HKFA cinema and the Lecture Hall of the Hong Kong Science Museum.

The retrospective -- presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in association with the Goethe Institut Hong Kong -- includes Murnau's Oscar-winning Sunrise in a newly restored version from 20th Century Fox, the original tinted version of the vampire classic Nosferatu, the enduring Faust, the classic The Last Laugh, the zany The Grand Duke's Finances and Murnau's final work, Tabu.

Accompanying the films is a multimedia archival exhibition from the Filmmuseum Berlin - Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek. It will be on display in the exhibition hall of the HKFA from June 13 to August 24. Admission is free.

Included in the exhibition are set replicas that demonstrate Murnau's 1920s shooting techniques; some 200 archival properties from Berlin; film footage; and interviews with film critics on Murnau's techniques, musical scores and aesthetics. A catalogue of the exhibition is available for HK$40.

Murnau's work will be discussed in two seminars, both in Cantonese, scheduled for June 21 and July 5.

Often mentioned in the same breath as German cinematic masters like Pabst, Robert Wiener and Fritz Lang, Murnau created 21 films in his short lifetime. Deeply influenced by literature, theatre and the arts, he developed a unique film language that drilled deeply into the human psyche.

Opening the restrospective is Sunrise (1927), Murnau's first film in Hollywood and one for which the Fox Film Corporation gave him carte blanche. The film resembles the best of his German work, with the same stylish sets, unusual composition, lyrical atmosphere and fluid camera work. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Janet Gaynor.

The full-blooded drama City Girl (1930) was Murnau's swan song at Fox. As in Sunrise, Murnau splendidly contrasts the city and open wheat fields. Though released in a mutilated version, City Girl's influence has been felt down to the present day in films such as A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall.

With the vampire tale Nosferatu (1922), Murnau showed himself to be a pioneer in the use of lighting, composition, moving shadows, costumes and set design. His cinematic linkage of vampires with rats, nightmares and death was unique. The film has exercised a powerful fascination on directors ever since and has been remade many times, notably by Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog and John Badham. A newly restored 35mm version of the film will be shown at the retrospective.

Students of cinematic history will be intrigued by The Haunted Castle (1921), which has been called the blueprint for Nosferatu. Its mysterious plot is full of jealousies, disguises, foreboding dreams and murders.

Faust (1926) is a supreme example of German studio craftsmanship. Murnau experimented boldly with light, movement and forms in retelling the classic German folktale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for the gift of youth. The famous scene where the demon flies through the air with a rejuvenated Faust set a standard for special effects that it took other filmmakers many years to equal.

The Last Laugh (1924), the tragic tale of a hotel doorman who is demoted to washroom attendant, is another daring experiment, in which Murnau used a moving, or "unchained", camera. It contrasts strikingly with the a creative harmony of composition, design, acting and camera movement that is evident in Tartuffe (1926), based on Moliere's satirical play.

The Grand Duke's Finances (1924) finds Murnau deep in the world of comic irony. Shot in a sunny Mediterranean paradise, the film about an impecunious nobleman, damsels in distress and gangs of thugs is characterised by a bantering tone and witty, quirky characters.

Murnau's last film, Tabu (1931), is the story of a Polynesian girl who tries to avoid being sacrificed to the gods. It was shot entirely in Tahiti. Murnau died in a car crash just a few days before its premiere.

His earliest surviving film, Journey into the Night (1920), plays on the themes of fear, desire and isolation among lovers.

Phantom (1922) was undoubtedly one of Murnau's most important works. Adapted from Gerhart Hauptmann's novel, it tells the story of a town clerk and his unrequited love. The Burning Soil (1922) is a poetic film that contrasts the lifestyles of a traditional peasant and a worldly aristocrat.

Most screenings at the retrospective will have live piano accompaniment by Ernest Maurice Corpus. All films have English intertitles or subtitles.

Tickets priced at $50 are available at all URBTIX outlets. Half-price concessionary tickets are available for senior citizens, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients. A 10% discount will apply to purchases of six to 10 tickets, and those who buy 11 tickets or more will receive a 20% discount.

For information call 2734 2900 or 2739 2139 or browse the website at or Reservations can be made by phone at 2734 9009 or on the internet at

End/Wednesday May 28, 2003

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