Even more than 80 years after his death, German director F.W. Murnau’s films continue to be some of the creepiest ever put on celluloid. In a story that could have come directly from one of his macabre tales, someone broke into his coffin and stole his head.
According to Variety, various news outlets in Germany are reporting that some as- yet unknown grave robber or robbers dug up Murnau’s embalmed body from his family plot in Stahnsdorf, Germany, about 12 miles outside of Berlin. After prying open the metal coffin, they then made off with his head. His two brothers (who are buried close to him) were not disturbed, indicating that whoever perpetrated this particular crime was indeed after Murnau and Murnau alone. One outlet reports that there was some wax residue found nearby, possibly from candles used in some kind of occult ritual.
Part of the German Expressionist movement, Murnau’s best known work is Nosferatu, his unauthorized 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is still one of the spookiest movies ever made. Eventually in the mid-1920s he made his way to America and began working in Hollywood, where he turned in a trio of films for Fox, 4 Devils, City Girl, and Sunrise. The latter of these films won an Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production at the first every ceremony in 1929.
Having survived numerous plane crashes in World War I, where he was a commander in the German air force, Murnau was killed in 1931 in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Santa Barbara. Though he died in California, he was buried in his native land. Of the 21 movies he directed, no less than eight of them have ultimately been lost completely to the ravages of time.
The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the production of Nosferatu. The movie stars John Malkovich as Murnau, while Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck, the actor who played the vampire, Count Orlock, and was, according to the legend perpetuated by the film, an actual, honest-to-god vampire himself. Even though he probably wasn’t really an immortal bloodsucker (but who knows?), Schreck still gave one of the creepiest performances ever.
In 1979, fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog remade Murnau’s most famous movie, Nosferatu, with his own problematic method actor leading man, Klaus Kinski, as the spooky bald vampire.