German Expressionism--part two: The Path to Chaos

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

 

Film history is littered with notable duos. The most famous worked in front of the camera: Tracy and Hepburn, Redford and Newman, Bogart and Bacall; recent pairings are somewhat less stellar (Jay and Silent Bob?) but as in all relationships, good chemistry is essential. Less well known but arguably much more influential are the pairings behind the camera: Orson Welles’ propitious meeting with Gregg Toland so early in his career, Ingmar Bergman’s work with cinematographer Sven Nyquist (The Knight and Death playing chess on the beach in the Seventh Seal), Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann ( the memorable screaming violins in Psycho and the elegiac, dreamlike score for Vertigo).

 
  
 The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman, 1957              Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941
 
No less an historic collaboration occurred in Germany in 1924.  F.W.Murnau, whose Nosferatu gained him international notoriety hired Karl Freund to shoot his newest production, The Last Laugh. It would, for both, cement their reputations in cinema history.
 
 
 Emil Jannings, FW Murnau, Karl Freund, Berlin, 1924           Freund (with camera) and crew members on the set of The Last Laugh
 
Freund, who was mustered out of service during the war because of weight problems developed, with Murnau, a style of shooting that was unfettered, weightless, and startlingly confident in expanding the boundaries of what was possible in a narrative film. Murnau and Freund had a mesmerizing subject to shoot: the brilliant German actor Emil Jannings. Janning’s acting skills were honed to such a degree that a shot of him from behind could evoke more pathos than many actors could generate with hours of scenery chewing. Murnau and Freund, still finding their way as film artists were anxious and ready to move beyond the standard acceptable forms of cinematic storytelling. The simple, sad story of a proud man brought down hard by age, reduced in stature and standing from a prestigiously uniformed doorman of an important hotel to lowly washroom attendant provided Murnau and Freund with a platform for expanding cinema’s vocabulary. Although the story has an odd deus-ex-machina ending (a millionaire's will instructs that the last man to serve him--the German title is Die Letzte Mann--would inherit enormous wealth) its dark fable-like simplicity offered Murnau and Freund a fine vehicle for Expressionistic description and visual experimentation.
 
 
 Murnau (in hat behind camera) directing Emil Jannings      A crane and wagon (used for dolly shots) on The Last Laugh set.
 
Considered by many to be the high-water mark for the German Expressionist movement, The Last Laugh abjures the wild swings of earlier entries such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Murnau’s fine touch demonstrates a more thoughtful and refined expressionism (although “refined expressionism” may strike many as an oxymoron on a par with “rules for anarchists”). The romanticism evident in Nosferatu takes a backseat in The Last Laugh to scenes alternating between an almost documentary realism (the grey block of housing where the doorman lives) and the expressionistic surrealism of the doorman’s drunken dreams wherein he hoists baggage too heavy for a half dozen younger men, tossing a huge trunk high in the air and catching it to the applause of hotel staff and guests.
 
 
Dream scene, The Last Laugh.                                                    The doorman in better days. Note the careful lighting of the background.
 
The binder that holds the film as it soars, like the dream baggage, high in the air, twirling around before the amazed viewer, is the stunningly accomplished camerawork of Karl Freund. In Freund, Murnau found a collaborator equally willing and able to look past what was to what could be. He strapped the camera to his chest, mounted it on a bicycle for a dolly shot that begins in a descending elevator and moves across the hotel lobby to look out into the street through a revolving door. He wired the camera to a set of cables to run the camera down towards the bell of trumpet. He then ran the film in reverse to create a POV shot in which the viewer zooms up from the horn. In the dream sequence he used refraction filters and varied the focus to allow the viewer entrée to the doorman’s feverish dream world. He freed the camera, and with it the audience, from its earthbound bondage. Many set-ups, to be sure, make use of more standard formulas for camera placement and movement but the viewer quickly becomes aware that those standards at any moment can dissolve. B.R. Crisler writing in the New York Times in a 1937 interview with Freund declared that his camera”… was a living narrative instrument, as lean and eloquent as the prose of Hemingway at his best.” Like Hemingway, choosing words as if he were picking stones of just the right color and shape from a stream bed, Freund’s carefully composed scenes compel the viewer’s attention with memorable imagery.
In addition to the “unchained camera” Murnau and Freund employed a battery of practical and in-camera effects involving multiple exposures and picture in picture effects. Long before optical printing made these types of effects a regular part of film vocabulary such shots were remarkable in a narrative film. Many of these effects recall experimental techniques explored in the twenties by Russian directors Dziga Vertov and Dmitri Kirsanoff whose work relied on montage editing (a style utilizing many quick cuts, the general effect of which is to create new meaning out of a series of images) and in-camera effects such as carefully organized double exposures, and unusual angles. For the Russians, especially theorists like Pudovkin and Eisenstein, such elements comprised a revolutionary form of film-making. For Murnau too these excursions across the far frontiers of narrative film style represented a breakthrough but his was an emotional and expressive rather than political revolution.
 
 
    
Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1927   Dmitri Kirsanoff', Menilmontant, 1926, Examples of multiple exposures.
 
Murnau also had the great fortune of working for an executive producer, Erich Pommer (who also produced Metropolis for Fritz Lang), who provided him with the time and money to bring his vision to life. The sets constructed on the UFA lots used forced perspective to give the impression of great depth. Murnau even went so far as using toy cars and little people to heighten the sense of depth and distance. This combination of full size constructions with the forced perspective sets and models required impressive and careful control of lighting and camerawork to make it work, requirements that were the special talents of Karl Freund. Freund’s care with lighting would become a hallmark of his career up to and including his development of unique technical solutions for shooting I Love Lucy for television in the fifties. His work on Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece Metropolis and many of the films from his American years, notably horror films shot at Universal Studios in the thirties, solidified his reputation as a master lighting cameraman. Years later in an interview conducted by the critic Kenneth Turan, cast members from MGM’s 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice recalled Freund’s consummate professionalism. The actress Karen Morley described Freund’s attention to detail and bemoaned what she considered the lack of such care in a latter day Hollywood. “And they don’t lovingly light any more. They do not do it. We would be on the set at nine o’clock in our robes, and walk through the scene, whatever it was. The cameraman would look at it with his little eye-finder, and talk to his best boy and a couple of the lighting men, and then we would go away and our stand-ins would come on….By about ten-thirty it would be time to shoot the scene. You don’t see that in the lighting that goes on in today’s pictures. Today they start shooting at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s “hurry right back”! If you get all the words in, they say, “Print it.” During his years in Germany Freund, working with directors like Murnau and Lang, perfectionists, had plenty of opportunity to take the time to get it right.
 
 
Karen Morley (third from left) in Pride and Prejudice, Greer Garson (front) played the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet. Directed by Robert Leonard
1940, Karl Freund, cinematographer. Freund was behind the camera for many American classics. Key Largo, 1948. An example of Freund at the peak of his powers. Edward G. Robinson (right) played the sadistic gangster Johnny Rocco. Directed by John Huston.
 
In The Last Laugh, Freund’s experimentation with camera movement and low-key lighting helps us to access the extreme emotions of the doorman as the story progresses. The doorman, stripped of his resplendent coat, the symbol of his prestige, steals it, unable to stand the humiliation of walking home without it past his neighbors. Freund’s camera glides along past windows and doors which open and fill with smirking, laughing neighbors, pointing at the doorman, the news of his demotion having beaten him home. Janning’s walk of shame is a truly discomfiting and difficult experience for the viewer. He sinks further with each new humiliation and the viewer, tethered by the camera, sinks with him. The distraught doorman slumps into the shadows of his apartment, the sparkling  lights of the city shining through his windows mock his despair; respectability, hope, and refinement now lost to him. The final image of the doorman sitting alone in the penumbral gloom of the hotel washroom, a broken man, an abject figure of abysmal sadness is nearly unbearable and Murnau wrings every ounce of pathos out of it with a loooooong, slow fade to black.
 
 
  
Emil Jannings, The Last Laugh                            The doorman's fate. Emil Jannings, The Last Laugh
 
The art historian Kenneth Clark once said that masterpieces have many layers. One of the more impressive layers in The Last Laugh is its ability to tell its story without intertitles, the ubiquitous text cards that punctuated nearly all silent films providing the audience with running explanations and dialogue (the “father returns home after many years abroad to find his business in ruins” sort of thing). With the exception of close-ups of a letter and some signage, there are no intertitles in this film. I first saw a print with no translation of this letter but at that time, even a rudimentary knowledge of German did nothing to hinder my understanding and I would say that no sense of German at all would not put a viewer at a disadvantage. Context and superior storytelling provide perfect understanding.
 
Silent film at this level, using imagery alone to tell a story, especially one with the universal elements and commonality of human experience as The Last Laugh recalls the role of iconography in medieval churches. Worshippers entering a church in the middle ages, most of whom were illiterate, relied on their familiarity with imagery of saints, events from the life of Jesus and symbolic representations of Church dogma as a doorway into a spiritual world that would have been largely closed off from them otherwise. Not being able to read did not preclude them from gainful understanding of occasionally complicated biblical stories and theological revelations. Likewise, the imagery of silent film, at the level achieved by Murnau and Freund in The Last Laugh speaks the language of a universal artform. The American poet, Marianne Moore, a contemporary of Murnau’s, once wrote “ the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not silence, but restraint.” Applied to Murnau one could easily substitute for restraint, art.
 
 
 
Image of St. Peter, left. The iconography of Saint Peter the apostle very often depicted him holding a set of keys, the symbol of his role as keeper of the keys to heaven. Mosaic of Jesus, right, shows him dressed as a warrior but wearing purple robes (the symbol of a king). He crushes satan under one foot, symbolized by the snake, and Rome under the other foot, represented by a lion. These images would make complete sense to early Christians, even those unable to read.
 
The international success of the Last Laugh brought Murnau, Jannings and Freund to the attention of Hollywood studios. Murnau, lured by Fox to America in 1927, was granted complete control and an extravagant budget for the production of his last great film (he died in an automobile accident in 1930). Sunrise, a Song of Two Humans was perhaps even more of a fable than The Last Laugh. The characters are given iconic names: the Man, the Wife, the City Woman. The story line is simple and ageless: a newly married couple living in the country and a conniving woman from the CITY who comes between them. The city woman seduces the husband and entices him to kill his wife and come live with her in the CITY. The film moves seamlessly through a series of styles (much like James Joyce's stylistic rambles in Ulysses published in 1925)—straightforward realist narrative segments, surrealistic, nightmare images of the cacophony and sensualism of city life, dreamlike scenes of the man wandering under moonlight across a fog shrouded moor. Expressionism vies with realism and fantasy. But it all works. Murnau by this time was at the peak of his powers as an artist and surrounded himself, as always, with committed and gifted collaborators.
 
    
The Man and his Wife in the country and later in the city. Sunrise, 1927                   The Man and the City Woman.
 
Although shot in America, Sunrise has a thoroughly European feel. The design, direction and photography bring to fruition Murnau’s vision of film as a work of pure emotion and feeling, the kind of vision he was perhaps working towards at UFA. Cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher expanded the astonishing visual command Murnau and Freund achieved in The Last Laugh. The unchained camera becomes here an instrument of finest control using light, shadow and meticulously planned effects to create a dense, highly personal visual universe through which it moves with dream-like fluidity. I can recall my first impression of a stunning piece of camerawork which captures the Man wandering across a fog-blanketed bog. It was clear from the smoothness of the camera’s movement that some kind of special technique had been employed; something no one else was doing in the 1920s. Looking at it today one could swear it had to be some kind of precursor to steadicam technology. In fact, it was a variation on the standard tracking shot, which placed a camera dolly on rails or tracks allowing assistants to push or pull it without jarring bumps and unwanted motion. But since the ground was clearly visible and the camera moved all around the subject with ease, this solution seemed unlikely. The effect was achieved instead by hanging the camera from cables suspended from rails attached to the studio ceiling. Another innovation was the addition, by Rosher, of an electric motor to run the camera. Most silent films were hand-cranked, an impossibility in this instance. Now, consider the time and effort and ingenuity expended on a single tracking shot lasting a few minutes and extend that the length of the film. The commitment in talent, energy and vision shines from each frame of Sunrise. Few films are as visually satisfying and beautiful to look at even now over 80 years later.
 
 
 The Man wanders in the fog looking for the Woman from the city. Sunrise, 1927. Karl Struss and Charles Rosher.
 
Murnau used carefully timed multiple exposures, which required the camera operator to rewind the film to exactly the correct frame and re-expose the film after removing specially shaped masks that covered parts of the lens. Not only were the technicians tasked with accomplishing this exacting in-camera effect, they had to expose different parts of the frame and change images within those frames to match the rhythm required by Murnau. The best example of this effect can be seen in a fantasy sequence wherein the City Woman describes for the Man the frenetic and sensuous pleasures awaiting them in the City. If you look up Sunrise on YouTube you can see this sequence. One posted version is titled “Murnau on Crack”. That’s not a bad description. It is a virtuoso display of the use of silent film to convey something that spoken language could not. In scene after scene Sunrise affirms Murnau’s command of his medium.
 
 
Examples of the use of multiple exposures for dramatic purpose. On the left, images of the good life promised by the city woman
who wishes the husband to kill his wife. On the right, Murnau displays the hold she has over the man as he watches his wife and considers the unthinkable.Sunrise.
 
Sunrise, now considered one of the 100 greatest films achieved additional fame by being awarded a special Academy Award (it won three in all) in the first year the Motion Picture Academy began its annual awards (the awards weren’t referred to as Oscars until the early 30s). It was also the unfortunate victim of the next great technical development in cinema, sound. Just as the camera gained wings it crashed to earth. The camera would remain largely static for nearly a decade until technical improvements again allowed for movement but the cameras had grown in size and weight by then and required a team of grips, assistants and camera operators. In a little over 20 years film had gone from a novelty to a serious and thoroughly engaging art form.
Shooting Sunrise. As always, Murnau surrounded himself with talented, committed artists and technicians.
That same year, 1927, back in Germany, a film was released that many regard as the epitome of expressionism in German film: Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. Metropolis has elements of social criticism (the story is set in 2027 in a city which divides the upperclass masters, who enjoy lives of luxury and pleasure, from the lowerclass workers, kept like slaves underground tending to the enormous machines that provide for the masters) and science fiction (the introduction of the first film robot ). A score of visual elements also turn up in American horror films of the thirties, notably the laboratory of the mad scientist Rotwang, who creates the robot to sow seeds of dissension amongst the workers.
 
Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the mad scientist, Rotwang in Metropolis. Klein-Rogge also appeared in several other Fritz Lang films as the master criminal Dr. Mabuse. Crazed criminals seemed to be his specialty. The gizmos, pulleys, switches and wiring in his lab might look a bit silly today but this set design was enormously influential. If you have ever wondered why laboratories, even computer labs, have all sorts of lights blinking and machines smoking, blame Fritz Lang.
Practically every mad scientist scene for the next 70 years draws inspiration from the settings and effects achieved by Lang and his team: fountains of electric sparks, beakers filled with smoking, fiery liquids, energy fields encircling the robot rising and falling as it comes to life, and Rotwang himself, the prototype for wild-eyed, maniacal, unhinged scientists running headlong into a collision with the “natural order” of the world. Even Rotwang's metal hand reappears years later in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. All of this was new and brilliant stuff. Even the idea of a robot was relatively new. Czech writer Karel Capek introduced this staple of science fiction in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1921. Lang was fascinated with the idea of an artificial creature who could be mistaken as human—an idea that would maintain its appeal through many incarnations in future horror and science fiction tales.
 
Workers tend the great machines that power the city. The great tower in the city of the masters. Metropolis, 1927
 At its world premiere Metropolis clocked in at over two and a half hours. This might seem long but lengthy run-times were not unknown in the silent era. French director Abel Gance’s biographical film Napoleon, released the same year as Metropolis, ran over five hours and the German expatriate director Erich von Stroheim in 1924, released Greed, his masterpiece based on a Frank Norris novel, with an original running time of ten hours! Of the three, only Napoleon has been restored to anything like its original state. Different versions of Metropolis have bounced around for decades. I have seen at least six different prints. Some have scenes removed and some versions move scenes around. Most versions have been edited for time which makes a complicated storyline even more difficult to comprehend. Recent attempts to create a composite of the film from different source prints have been reasonably successful in at least restoring the feel and look of Lang’s expressionist masterpiece.
  
Epics of the silent film era: Napoleon, directed by Abel Gance, 1927; Greed, Eric von Stroheim, 1924; and Metropolis.
Lang, incidentally, declined any connection with expressionism. In interviews given in the late fifties and early sixties he denied that he was ever influenced by expressionism which he called "Caligarism". The fact that this film bears the expressionist label has more to do with the stunning photography and special effects—the use of shadows, unusual compositions and over the top sets--and an overwrought emotionalism--than any particular aesthetic style associated with Lang’s other works. In this film as in Murnau’s Last Laugh, the principal photography was handled by Karl Freund. Freund, working with a special effects team unrivaled for its creativity and attention to detail, created images that are still among the most famous ever committed to film.
 
On the set of Metropolis. Fritz Lang is below the camera. The master and his monocle. Fritz Lang during his days at UFA.
The giant structures of the great city were created using models and real actors combined through an ingenious method called the Schufftan process. This eponymous effect developed by Eugen Schufftan, one of the special effects cinematographers working on Metropolis, has been used in a number of variations for decades. In fact as recently as 2003 Peter Jackson on his Lord of the Rings trilogy used a version of this process to insert live action elements into a scene with miniature sets. The effect is achieved by use of a mirror and plate glass which when placed at the proper angle to both the miniatures and the live cast members allows the camera to see them in combination. Schufftan likely borrowed the idea from a famous theatrical effect used by magicians in the 19th century. The trick, known as "Pepper's Ghost", used mirrors and careful lighting to make figures and images appear and disappear at the magician's command. In fact, a further variation of this effect is used everyday in television studios: the teleprompter. The standard studio teleprompter allows news anchors and reporters to look directly at the camera while reading copy scrolled across his or her field of vision reflected in a mirror specially coated to let images pass through it.
 
Metropolis workshop. Combining miniatures and full size elements required the use of a complex mirror system called the Schufftan process. A similar arrangement is still used by modern television teleprompters.
Among the many outstanding effects created for Metropolis, the robot transformation scene is most memorable, if only for its influential status among producers, directors and film designers , an influence that lasted for years. The plot at this point turns on the mad scientist Rotwang’s invention of a MachineMan which can be transformed into human form and “programmed” to do its creator’s bidding. Rotwang captures the beautiful Maria, who strives to help free the workers from their slavery. Rotwang transforms the robot into a Maria double and sends it out to wreak havoc in the underground. This transformation required painstaking organization and multiple passes of film with extreme care taken in lighting and triggering of effects equipment created by Lang’s team. Gunther Rittau, one of the cinematographers on the set describes “…extremely complicated machines especially constructed [for these shots]”. He relates that “for days the workers had to be trained in operating the appliances, which required split-second precision. Individual pieces of film were exposed up to thirty times and depended…most of all on the nerves and the patience of the cameraman.” During the creation of a single effect shot on 120 feet of exposed film—a 10 second sequence--took over 8 days to shoot. Just imagine what Lang would have done with digital tools and CGI effects!
 
Robot transformation scene and the flood sequence. Scenes requiring weeks of special effects planning. Metropolis. 
UFA, the studio that had helped create expressionism, suffered enormous financial difficulties because of Metropolis. Erich Pommer, the film’s producer, had given Lang a free hand and huge budget. Lang obsessed over every detail and spent enormous sums to that end. He was a hard taskmaster as well, the model of the monocled martinet, rigid and demanding. Over one thousand cast members were thrust into ice cold water for a flood sequence, Lang seeking as much emotion and surprise as possible from his unfortunate extras. The shooting and editing took well over a year and the film, although now considered a masterpiece, never made back what it cost to shoot. Edited for time, multiple versions were shown both in Germany and abroad—the cuts making a hash of the storyline--and it’s quite likely that only those who saw it during its first Berlin run saw anything close to a director’s cut.
 
Erich Pommer (left) and Fritz Lang. Pommer was a driving force behind many of UFA's greatest films. On the set of Metropolis, the robot gets a water break while her suit is dry-cleaned.
All of that aside, Metropolis has been a touchstone of fantasy, horror and science fiction since it premiered in 1927 and it increased the reputations of everyone connected with it. Both Lang and Freund soon emigrated to America, along with a horde of other film folk, from all over Europe but mostly from Germany. In America Fritz Lang moved beyond the frightening totalitarian images of Metropolis and the mythic imagery of earlier films such as Siegfried and Kreimhild’s Revenge— paeans to the German heroic epic the Niebelungenlied—which drew the attention of the Nazis. Years later Lang claimed to have been invited by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, to come work for the Fuehrer, an invitation, asserted Lang, that prompted him to decamp that very night for American shores. In fact, he went first to Paris after the Nazis banned his Dr. Mabuse films and later to America in 1934.Many question the veracity of Lang’s story (dates and times don’t add up) but there is no doubting that even the dim, thuggish Nazis saw the value in having the creator of such powerful totalitarian imagery on retainer. Lang's wife and collaborator, Thea von Harbou (screenwriter for Metropolis) did in fact become a member of the Nazi party. She and Lang divorced in 1933. Hitler later convinced the hugely talented documentary filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl to fill the role of chief propaganda filmmaker (her vision of a huge Nazi rally in 1934 at Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will dramatically affirmed the propagandistic power of film. Several years later she was directing in the same Babelsberg studio where Lang shot Metropolis). Lang’s American films concentrated less on grand epic and more on the personal quest and moral power and clarity of the individual. His experiences at UFA however branded his visual style with the characteristic expressionist darkness and films such as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat are classics of Film Noir.
 
Two periods of Fritz Lang. The epic hero Siegfried on his quest for immortality. The Niebelungen 1924. Glenn Ford on a very different kind of quest. The Big Heat 1953.
Karl Freund came to Hollywood with a stellar reputation as an enormously talented lighting cameraman with a penchant for innovation. Early in his American career he contributed to the first wave of Hollywood horror films. He was the cinematographer for the Bela Lugosi Dracula; Frankenstein, shot in 1931 owed much to his work on Metropolis and in 1932 he directed the Universal studios production of The Mummy with Boris Karloff. All of his work is marked by careful compositions and excellent lighting choices. After directing Mad Love starring Peter Lorre (film critic Pauline Kael suggests that  Mad Love was a major influence on the visual style adopted for Citizen Kane. The fact that Gregg Tolland was the cinematographer for both supports this suggestion.) he retired from directing and concentrated again on his work behind the camera.
   
A couple of egg-heads. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane 1941, and Peter Lorre in Mad Love 1935 seem a bit preoccupied. Boris Karloff in The Mummy, 1932 looking none too happy.
 
They live! The mad scientist laboratory in Metropolis and the re-animation scene in James Whale's Frankenstein 1931.
In the 1950s Freund was approached by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball who asked him to devise a way to shoot a new television show on film, and do it so that the cast could run through the script as if they were doing a stage play. Freund, always an innovator, came up with what became a standard for television production. Using three cameras connected to monitors in a control room, he mapped out the camera moves and shot selection for each episode of I Love Lucy, working with a script and watching the rehearsals. There were several large problems to solve. For one, the show was shot live before an audience so special camera set-ups and lighting arrangements were impossible. The show was done on a weekly basis and turnaround time was minimal. Freund’s solution to the lighting problem needed to take into account the high contrast of television images in the early fifties. His solution was the color grey. He had all the sets, all the fabrics, chairs, tables, walls and even costumes colored varying shades of a middle grey. This prevented harsh contrasts between areas of extreme light and dark and overcame the problem of not being able to adjust the lighting for each scene. The system worked so well that most weeks the entire show could be shot and “in the can” in under an hour. Editing was largely selecting from the coverage available and following the script, nothing fancy. The transference from film to the images broadcast on the low resolution monitors in American homes every week lost something in the translation but nothing compared to image degradation suffered by rival television productions. The three cameras, stationed at strategic locations around the stage area, allowed the audience to see the actors but gave Freund and his directors plenty of coverage of the action and the ability to cut to close ups of the talent, a procedure still in use in television studios today.
"Poppa" Karl Freund with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. 1953
In an article for Art Photography magazine in 1953 Freund considered the state of television technology: “As I watch television films on my own set (just imagine the horror with which Freund, a perfectionist regarding images, must have regarded early television visuals!) I am continually aware that I do not have a complete control of the end results. For there is an engineer in every television station control booth who can change the screen image according to his instructions and depending upon the condition of his equipment. And there are the TV viewers who are their own "engineers." I believe that the time is not too distant when the only engineers will be the technicians who actually create the film that is transmitted.” One can only wonder what Freund would make of youtube. Given his innovative nature it’s likely he would have had his own channel on the site. Never happy with available film technology, Freund founded a company in 1941, Photo Research, to develop new equipment and processes. His company has won special academy awards for technical achievement and innovation over the years and is still in business today thirty years after his death in 1969.
German Expressionism did not linger beyond the decline of the Weimar Republic. For one thing, for all of its notoriety, it was still only a minor style in the larger world of German film, practiced by a select few. For another, most of those select few had departed for America by the early 1930s to escape the rising tide of fanaticism and nationalism that would culminate in yet another catastrophic war. Even a short list of those who emigrated to Hollywood from Austria and Germany is impressive. In addition to Murnau, Lang, and Freund that list includes directors Josef Von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Otto Preminger, Ernst Lubitsch, William Dieterle, and Douglas Sirk, producer Carl Laemmle, and actors Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt (who had played the killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Felix Bressart, Walter Slezak and Sig Ruman. In the depth and breadth of talent it resembles the swelling of the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera’s German wing in the thirties whose wartime productions benefited from a similar wave of immigrant artists.
 
 
German emigrants to Hollywood. Marlene Dietrich and Billy Wilder (left) and Paul Henreid with a couple of bit players.
Many of these new arrivals brought with them the varied essences, flavors and sometimes contradictory philosophies that comprised German Expressionism. Their visions, combined with the influence of American and Hollywood culture added to the depth and diversity of American film. One major aesthetic, Film Noir emerged from the melding of Expressionistic imagery and continental existentialism with the American gangster film. It was given the name by French critics who noticed the distinctly darker cast to a certain type of film that had developed during World War II. Although past its heyday, Noir elements have never completely disappeared from the American film world. The concept of the individual confronting darkness and danger, conceived in the aftermath of a great war and fertilized in the trauma of another remains a distinct and unique part of American film narrative.
 
 
Prime examples of the Film Noir style. Dick Powell (left) in Murder My Sweet 1944, and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past 1947. The shadowy textures and low-key lighting of German Expressionism combined with the American Gangster and mystery genres yielded something entirely new. French film critic Nino Frank is credited with coining the expression (it means "black film"). Most of Europe had seen no American films since 1939. During the war years there had been a notable move towards the darkness both in the scripts and on the screen, readily apparent to anyone screening the flood of films after the war. The Film Noir style has proven to be quite durable.
 
As a final word on the essential nature and character of the culture that helped to create German Expressionism, I can’t help but turn to my old friend Friedrich Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche considers the German people: “The German soul has its passageways and inter-passageways; there are caves, hideouts, and dungeons in it; its disorder has a good deal of attraction of the mysterious; the German is an expert on the secret path to chaos.”
 
Auf Wiedersehen, meine freunde.
 
 
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the German secret path to chaos. Conrad Veidt (as the killer in Caligari) looks surprised. He shouldn't be.
 
Postscript  
I had intended to cover the influence of German Expressionism on early American Horror film but that topic, especially with the plethora of effects routinely employed, deserves its own entry. Thanks to "F" from "The Projection Booth" for the suggestion to look at German Expressionism. It has been a great pleasure revisiting one of my favorite periods.
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