The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The skull of famed horror film director is stolen; ‘Satanists’ suspected

Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” (Kino International)

Olaf Ihlefeldt lives a life filled with mixed blessings. On one hand, he’s manager of one of Western Europe’s premier resting places — the idyllic Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin.

“Southwesterly Stahnsdorf belongs beside Venice Toteninsel San Michele, Vienna’s Central Cemetery and Père Lachaise in Paris [as] undoubtedly one of the grand hotels of international cemeteries,” the Web site of what’s known as the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdort reads. “The Südwestkirchhof is a place of superlatives: the largest forest cemetery, the most important monuments of funeral art, the final resting place of outstanding personalities.”

But Ihlefeldt has a problem: He’s responsible for the body of acclaimed German director F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) — the mastermind behind the horror classic “Nosferatu” — and somebody keeps messing with it. Murnau’s tomb was first broken into in the 1970s, and his iron coffin damaged; in February, the grave was disturbed again by unknown parties.

And now, someone has stolen Murnau’s head — or, more accurately, his skull. Reached by phone early Wednesday, Ihlefeldt was not pleased.

“I think I know what you mean,” he said when asked of rumors of Murnau’s skull-theft reported in Spiegel Online and other outlets. “Yes, it’s true.”

Ihlefeldt said he discovered the tomb had been broken into on Monday. A candle left at the scene led to speculation that Murnau’s corpse was part of a ceremony staged by “Satanists” or those practicing “black magic,” as Ihlefeldt put it.

“There was a candle,” Ihlefeldt said. “… A photo session or a celebration or whatever in the night. It really isn’t clear.”

Though Murnau rests among luminaries — sharing real estate with composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with this Engelbert Humperdinck) and architect Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school (not to be confused with the band Bauhaus) — Ihlefeldt said Murnau’s tomb and his legacy are something, well, superlative.

“It was a really special, special thing there,” he said. “It was really important for us.”

It’s not clear whether Murnau, who died after a car accident in California in 1931, was specifically targeted, and the whereabouts of his skull are unknown. What is known: Murnau’s legacy as a pioneering German expressionist only seems to have grown in the eight decades since his death. The past century has seen terrifying films such as “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Fly” and “The Ring” — to name but a few. Some were made with sophisticated special effects; some spawned franchises of films now numbering in the double-digits; some were uber-violent.

But none of them really has anything on a silent takeoff on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” shot on film and released in 1922.

“Few characters in cinema have proved as indomitably influential as Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu,” John Oursler of Pop Matters wrote in 2013. “Even those who think they haven’t seen Murnau’s iconic horror ur-text actually have only secondarily. They have experienced it in homages and parodies, seen its influence on every successive horror film that has made use of the pioneering techniques of German Expressionism, been terrified by the image of a slinking shadow climbing across a wall.”

The similarity of Murnau’s tale to Stoker’s led to a lawsuit, and many prints of the film were destroyed. The movie’s legacy, however, lived on: The film influenced countless remakes of the “Dracula” tale; was remade by German icon Werner Herzog; and inspired the black comedy “The Shadow of the Vampire,” in which John Malkovich, as Murnau, casts Willem Dafoe as Orlok.

Given the lasting power of Murnau’s creation, it’s not hard to understand why an errant German Satanist would want to make off with his skull — which is little comfort to Ihlefeldt.

“It’s an absolute scandal here,” he said.