The head of pioneering German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been stolen from his grave in the historic Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin. The theft was discovered Monday by cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefeldt who found Murnau’s iron coffin had been broken into and his skull removed. Authorities aren’t certain when exactly the theft took place, sometime between July 4th and July 12th.
F.W. Murnau, one of the early cinematic masters who brought the sharp shadows and distortions of German Expressionism to film, died in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries sustained in a car wreck near Santa Barbara, California. His embalmed body was returned to Germany and interred in a crypt in the bucolic forested splendor of the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf. When they died years later, his two brothers Bernhard and Robert were laid to rest with him in the tomb. His brother’s coffins were not tampered with, so it seems this could have been a targeted theft rather than a random desecration. Someone wanted F.W. Murnau’s head.
Authorities found a candle inside the tomb. Murnau is most famous today as the director of cinematic masterpieces with occult themes — 1922’s Nosferatu vampires and 1926’s Faust Satan — so candles may have been part of some sad wanna-be ritual, or it may just have been used to cast some appropriately atmospheric light for a selfie.
Unfortunately this is not the first time the grave has been interfered with, although it is the first time any remains were stolen. The coffin was first damaged in the 1970s and there was another break-in as recently as February of this year. The cemetery is now considering walling in the burial chamber or separating F.W. Murnau’s remains from his family’s and burying them.
If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, or even if you have but it was some creaky old print, you must watch the version that was beautifully restored in 2006. They used a French tinted print as the basis then pulled in missing elements from other rare survivals. Even the score is a recreation of Hans Erdmann’s original, which is particularly meaningful because Nosferatu was one of the first feature films to have an original score.
It’s a miracle that we have any version of Nosferatu to enjoy. Bram Stoker’s widow Florence, her husband’s literary executor, sued Murnau and the production company for copyright infringement demanding full compensation and, brutally, the destruction of the movie which she never watched. Florence won. In 1925 the court ruled that the original negative and all existing prints of the movie were to be burned. It’s hard to put the movie genie back into the lamp three years after its premiere, however, even back when distribution wasn’t instantly global like it is now. Some prints survived the conflagration and began cropping up in theaters and private showings in the late 1920s.