the take

Has the (Second) Most Tragically Lost Film in Movie History Been Found?

F.W. Murnau, director of the long-lost 4 Devils.Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given the intensity with which the film-nerd blog/message board/newsgroup community has been buzzing about this for the past 24 hours or so, it would be a real buzz kill if this discovery turned out to be a hoax, or a mistake. But for now, let’s just be excited: An amateur film scholar posted on Tuesday on Criterion’s forums that he had discovered a print of F.W. Murnau’s long-vanished 1929 film 4 Devils in a private collection in Tacoma, Washington.

Let’s put this thing in perspective: Sure, the lost final 45 minutes of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons is still the Holy Grail of lost footage, but 4 Devils comes a close second.

Murnau, the genius director of Nosferatu, fresh off the ordeal of making his masterpiece Sunrise for William Fox in 1927, followed it up with this eye-popping and disturbing melodrama set among a trapeze act in a circus. But like many other silent films released in the wake of sound, it suffered financially, despite glowing reviews. And like many silent films that didn’t make any money, it was eventually junked and has been presumed lost for decades. The scholar Janet Bergstrom has even made a documentary detailing the travails of Murnau’s film, called 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film.

Of course, this entire conversation has occurred on the Internet, led by a guy with a tiny cartoon Hitler as his avatar, so this could be a complete hoax. And even if the film is real, it’s a nitrate print that’s apparently been in someone’s attic for the last few decades — so this whole incident could end in a giant fireball that consumes half the film-archivist community as soon as someone opens that canister or rubs two solid objects together in its general vicinity. At the risk of editorializing, that would suck. Here’s hoping it’s the real thing, it doesn’t kill anyone, and we get to see it soon. —Bilge Ebiri

So I’ve found a lost film… [Criterion Forums]

Has the (Second) Most Tragically Lost Film in Movie History Been Found?