He was one of a number of German film directors to take part in the expressionist movement that took root in German cinema during the 1920s, and he directed a number of movies that were influential and remain wildely seen among film scholars today. Much of Murnau's output from the silent era has been lost, and only a few of his films survive today; film scholars acknowledge them as masterpieces.
Murnau's most famous film is Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula that caused Stoker's estate to sue for copyright infringement. Murnau lost the lawsuit and all prints of the film were ordered destroyed, but bootleg prints were stored and preserved over time, so that Nosferatu is widely available in the present era. The film inspired Werner Herzog to remake the film in 1979.
Nearly as important as "Nosferatu" was "The Last Laugh" (1925), written by Carl Mayer and starring Emil Jannings. Often voted second greatest film of all time by international critics' polls, the film introduced the subjective point of view camera (where the camera "sees" from the eyes of a character and uses visual style to convey a character's psychological state). It also anticipated the cinema verite movement in its subject matter.
Murnau emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studio and made the 1920s-era fable Sunrise - a movie often cited by film scholars as one of the greatest films of all time. It was a success and it received several Oscars at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927 (though the movie Wings won Best Picture). However, Murnau's next two pictures, Four Devils and City Girl, were modified to adapt to the new era of sound film (Four Devils has been completely lost), and they were not well received as a result. Their poor reception disillusioned Murnau, and he quit Fox to journey for a while in the South Pacific.
Murnau's travels abroad resulted in the film Tabu, which was censored in America because it showed images of bare-breasted "native" Polynesian women. Tabu would be Murnau's last film, as he died in an automobile accident in 1931.