Spring 2017

Schloss Murnau, Hollywoodland, CA 90068

Tracing Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in Southern California

Volker M. Welter

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, photograph of Wolf’s Lair, Hollywood Hills, ca. 1928–1929. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek—Sammlung Murnau.

Castles, palaces, and stately manor homes provide the setting for many movies by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888–1931), the German silent film director who is today probably best known for Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922).1 One of Murnau’s earliest films, The Blue Boy (1919) is set in Vischering Castle in Westphalia, which dates back to the thirteenth century. The Haunted Castle (1921) takes place in a neoclassical manor house, and much of the plot of The Burning Earth (1922) happens in and around a castle in Silesia. For Nosferatu, Murnau picked Orava Castle in Slovakia, a building with roots stretching back to the thirteenth century, as the site of Count Orlok’s home. And while the location of The Expulsion (1923) is only a crofter’s home on a faraway mountaintop, its isolation recalls the privacy of the moated Vischering Castle.2

Murnau arrived in California in early July 1926 and stayed there, except for a few months back in Berlin in 1927, until mid-May 1929. It was then that he sailed for Tahiti to shoot his last movie, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), returning to California by October 1930. A few months later, on 11 March 1931, Murnau died from the injuries that he had suffered in a car accident just north of Santa Barbara the previous day. For parts of his sojourn in California, Murnau made his home in Los Angeles in a building that contemporaries called a Schloss or castle. The edifice and its whereabouts have thus far remained unidentified and its importance and meaning for Murnau, accordingly, obscure. Considering Murnau’s profession, to move into a castle-like home seems to be another case of movie settings determining private architectural taste. However, Murnau’s fascination with castles harks back much further than his rise to one of Weimar Germany’s foremost movie directors. Castles held for Murnau private, positive associations rather than just being sites of inexplicable events or even horror, as some of his movies might suggest.

An undated photograph by Murnau of his semi-detached villa (left half), Douglasstrasse 22, Berlin. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek—Sammlung Murnau.

In 1917, during the Great War, the military unit to which Murnau belonged occupied near Verdun “a beautiful, but rather melancholy château, abandoned by its owners. … [Murnau] had the largest room in the château, arranged in perfect taste. Everything in it was clean and well-appointed; when you went to see him you forgot about the war, and made a polite and civilized visit.”3

In Berlin, Murnau lived in a suburban version of a home that looked as if it had been lifted from a castle precinct in a walled medieval city. It was the family home of the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele (1889–1915), Murnau’s friend, and perhaps lover, who had been killed on the battlefield. After the war, the poet’s mother had invited Murnau to stay in the home in Berlin’s Grunewald neighborhood and some time later transferred the property to her son’s friend. The building at Douglasstrasse 22–22a consists of two grand, attached townhouses, erected in 1901–1902 by the builder Wilhelm Körner, with Murnau occupying number 22. The tall, timbered roof, darkly paneled entrance hall, and the heavy masonry around the lower exterior walls may recall the past, but Murnau transformed his abode into a place evoking a future life elsewhere. Murnau lived there with the painter Walter Spies—a close friend, perhaps even another lover—and together the two men filled the home with artworks such as Asian marionettes and a mural depicting Persian-style hunting scenes that Spies painted in Murnau’s study; in short, objects and motifs telling of dreams about living elsewhere.

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