I recently “discovered,” to both my delight and chagrin, Karl Freund. Who was Karl Freund? Just one of the most influential cinematographers, ever. And I, hack cinephile, had never heard of him. So probably what I am so excited about is old news for most. Anyway…
My search began when I decided to start writing about some of my favorite cinematographers. For some reason (or whim) I wanted to find out who shot Der Letzte Mann (1924), American title: The Last Laugh – a great, great film by F. W. Murnau and a stunning example of German Expressionism. I love that film, but I did not know who shot the thing. So I went looking, and that’s how I found K. Freund.
Publicity shot of Karl Freund (date?)
Somehow I feel as though I have stumbled upon a lost or forgotten treasure. And yet, I have come to realize my discovery is really no discovery at all, rather my stumbling is the product of not having paid attention.
Karl Freund (b.1890, d.1969) was one of the most significant and talented cinematographers of all time. His influence probably cannot be measured because it would be impossible to calculate such a force. And yet, I’m sure he does not get the kind of recognition heaped upon more modern cinematographers. Merely taking a look at the list of films he shot conveys a remarkable career.
Freund and crew in action (Metropolis?!)
For starters, he began his career as a cinematographer in Yugoslavia in 1912 on the film Jadna majka. He was twenty-two years old at the time. That is the same year that the pioneering cinematographer G. W. Bitzer shot The Musketeers of Pig Alley (aside: Bitzer shot a remarkable 68 films in 1912. Whew!).
Freund finished out his career developing the three-camera method for live television on the pioneering television show I Love Lucy (for thirteen episodes from 1951 to 1956).
Freund on the set of I Love Lucy checking light
levels before an evening’s shoot.
In between working the earlier days of silent film in Yugoslavia to working during the golden age of television in Hollywood, Freund created an illustrious career. Consider just this sample of films for which he is credited with having shot: The Golem (1920), Chained (1924), The Last Laugh (1924), Metropolis (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Good Earth (1937) for which he won an academy award, and Key Largo (1948). There are many more (133 total) excellent, and average, films he shot not listed here. He also directed several films, including The Mummy (1932).
Something I found interesting is that on Freund’s last film he helmed, Mad Love (1935) he worked with a thirty-one year old cinematographer by the name of Gregg Toland. As we all know, Toland became most famous for his collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941). But what I also found interesting is that, prior to Kane, Toland had already been nominated for an academy award in cinematography in 1938 for Dead End (1937). And he lost that year to Freund! I think it may be fair to say that Kane‘s stylistic and thematic influences, so obviously rooted in German Expressionism, can be traced back, in part, to Freund’s influence on Toland, both through collaboration and through friendly competition.
We should never forget how brilliant many filmmakers were even though they worked within studio systems and not as so-called “free” artists. Freund made his career with studios such as UFA, Universal Pictures, MGM, Warner Brothers Pictures, and CBS Television. And yet, he seemed to find his own way and produce great work.
In Der Letzte Mann (or The Last Laugh) Karl Freund produced many beautiful and stunning images, including wonderful camera movements and complicated tracking shots. One thing I noticed was how much of the film is photographed looking through things: glass, rain, smoke, railings, etc. The following are twelve quick screen grabs showing this “looking through” aesthetic.
The film opens with the camera riding down in an elevator to the lobby of the Hotel Atlantic.
A number of shots feature the great revolving glass door of the hotel entrance.
Here we see both through the rain glistened windows of the automobile and through the open window to the other side.
A shot in depth with our hero struggling with a heavy steamer trunk outside the hotel doors.
The hotel manager walking back to his office.
The revolving doors again, during the day time.
Our hero walking through the revolving doors. Notice the subtle reflections on the glass.
Our hero being given his walking papers by the hotel manager.
Our hero sneaking in to the hotel at night.
Shadow images of people through frosted glass.
Our hero sneaking out of the hotel.
The hotel dining room with diners in the distance behind frosted glass.
One of my majors in college was Art History. During that time I studied the grand sweep of artistic production from pre-historical cave paintings to post-modern art. On a time-line, cinema is almost just a blip, a little over a hundred years old. What I find so interesting is that with an artform of such limited history, there is still so much to discover and re-discover. For me, the personal discovery of Karl Freund is a real treat.