F.W. Murnau, the Silent Innovator

Emil Jannings portrays the hotel portier in the 1924 silent film The Last Laugh.
Emil Jannings portrays the hotel portier in the 1924 silent film The Last Laugh.

The invention of the technology that is used to create the movies as we know it today has dated back to the late 1800s, and the Lumière brothers have captured the attention of the audiences at the time with their short non-fiction films such as The Arrival of a Train (1896). The dramatic and fictional style of storytelling has appeared in the vast majority of films for over a hundred years. The earliest stages of contemporary cinematic storytelling dates back as far as Georges Méliès’s classic science-fiction drama A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 action film The Great Train Robbery (1903). During these early times the innovative directors had visualized a new dimension of cinematic techniques such as the use of cuts, dissolves and parallel editing in order to create a continuous story or a desired visual effect.

German expressionist F.W. Murnau was able to utilize the editing style that had been cinematically used for twenty years when he produced his famous silent films in the 1920s. However, what made his work unique and influential was the visual style that he had created with varied camera angles and colored prints that were not widely seen in other films. In 1928 he had written the following observation about the visual use of the camera: “I think the films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles,’ or as I prefer to call them, these ‘dramatic angles.’ They help photograph thought.” It was in his 1924 silent film The Last Laugh the viewer bears witness to the earliest uses of a moving camera. Murnau creatively placed the camera at unusual places such as at the top of a ladder to photograph a new angle. At one point during the film’s production he even had his cinematographer Karl Freund attach the camera around his stomach and ride a bicycle in order to get a unique camera movement captured on film.

With the gifted eye for visually creative storytelling F.W. Murnau has repeatedly relied upon the use of a distorted production design and creative photography techniques. In fact, his 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was the first film ever to receive an Oscar award for the best cinematography of the year, while his silent horror film Nosferatu (1922) has influenced the acting style, photographic appearance and set design of numerous vampire films since its release. With the techniques of innovative camera angles and design he was able to repeatedly build an intriguing feature length film that drew the attention of the audience members in to the dark lives of the characters.

The Last Laugh, for example, contains no audible dialogue and no title cards that would proclaim anything that would possibly be spoken between the characters. It is entirely built upon the purpose of watching a conflict unfold without the necessity to listen to what is being said. The hotel porter is a heavyset man who wears a thick graying beard that makes him appear to be in his late fifties or early sixties. Although his physical stature and age may slow him down, the porter is thrilled to be the first person the hotel guests meet as they arrive at the building’s front doorstep. Very little is said between the characters at the start of the film, but with the immediate appearance of a conflict it is painfully obvious that his age and limited ability of physical strength will possibly hinder him from retrieving a heavy piece of luggage from the roof of a vehicle while being drenched in the pouring rain. With a hesitant reaction he hoists the luggage on his back and struggles to pull it into the hotel lobby.

While trying to recuperate from the heavy lifting the porter takes a seat to catch his breath, let his sore joints rest for a moment, and to grab a drink of water that is given to him by bellboy. With the proper framing and editing of the story the viewer is able to observe the porter hard at work to retrieve the luggage, but the hotel manager did not witness such an event. The audience will view the manager’s appearance after the porter takes a seat for a quick rest from the heavy lifting.

A comparison is made between the viewpoint of the audience and that of the hotel manager. At the start of the film the camera serves as a first hand Point Of View for the audience member who “rides” an elevator down to the main floor of a hotel and then proceeds to “walk” through a large lobby before approaching the front door where the porter is cheerfully escorting guests to and from the taxi cabs out on the street. This first hand perspective with an appropriate camera movement offers the audience a wide perspective of the hustle and bustle of the hotel. Once the camera arrives at the front door of the building the camera would remain locked down to group of static shots as the porter continues to work hard in the rain.

The second viewpoint that appears in the opening sequence is the manager’s observation. When the manager first arrives in the scene the camera still remains in the position of the static shot that represents the viewpoint of the watchful eye of the audience. He does not immediately observe the porter who is missing from his post, but the audience is able to observe the manager and the recuperating porter. The manager’s Point of View is inserted into the story as he physically turns around to observe the porter sitting in a chair while thanking the bellboy for delivering a glass of water. The audience can deduce that it is the manager’s point of view by the framing of the shot.

The manager was seen walking through a revolving door, but prematurely stopping halfway through the door’s complete revolution. When the camera shot cuts to an alternate viewpoint the framing is cut in half by a portion of the revolving door. In one half of the picture the porter is seen with the bellboy, while the remainder of the frame is filled with the glass doorway and the concierge desk. The audience was able to observe the entire scenario as an omnipotent third person, while the manager was limited to a small fraction of the events that have occurred. With his limited viewpoint of the situation the manager marks a personal note about the porter’s work before returning to his office. Once he has left the scene the audience observes the porter returning to work after his brief break of recovery, and the manager is completely oblivious to the entire scenario.

Murnau’s use of the camera movement has given the audience a wider perspective of the events that are portrayed in the story. With the camera as the audience’s omnipotent eye they are given the opportunity to move around in the environment, but only at the discretion of the director and cinematographer. F.W. Murnau’s experimentation with the creative camera angles and movement has given the audience a brand new viewpoint to observe the chain of events that unfold during the course of the story. As technology has grown over the last seventy-five years the ability to physically move the camera around in any given environment with the slightest of ease has given the present day filmmakers a variety of options to choose from. At the root of all these fancy camera maneuvers and framing setups lies the most basic of visual designs that have appeared in some of Murnau’s most treasured films.

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