Even as an avid movie-watcher, there are blind spots in my viewing history. Among them, German Expressionism. Most of the big ones are silent films, and this spring I was an extra in a friend’s attempt at recreating the style via Greenscreen. So, it got me thinking, and good friend Tyler had a group of us over the other night for a trilogy of German director F.W. Murnau. The three films on the docket – “Nosferatu,” “The Last Laugh,” and “Sunrise.” We only got through the first two, which was fine because I’d recently seen “Sunrise.”
The films were all made between 1922 and 1927 and what fascinated me was how different they are. There is the horror movie, the character study, and the melodrama, respectively. I was expecting a much more cohesive thematic pathway through the films. Film was in its infancy, and there were simply things you couldn’t do. But what I found as we discussed the films was that Murnau was able to use his distinct visual style in three very different ways.
It’s nice to be surprised by movies. Sometimes movies like these feel like a chore; something you have to watch in order to get a sense of a film as an evolving art form, but that doesn’t really do anything for you emotionally or intellectually. After being left a little cold by “Nosferatu” I thought maybe that’s what this night would be. But then “The Last Laugh” began and it completely blew me away. It has some of the most dynamic camera movement I’ve ever seen in a silent film. I can’t say for sure, but this is one of cinema’s earliest character studies. The movie has such a sense not only of its main character, a Porter at an upscale hotel, but also for the many communities he inhabits. I didn’t know they made movies purely about behavior in 1925. In contrast to “Nosferatu,” which was all static, unmoving shots, this one is often on the move. It tracks along with The Porter as he walks through the courtyard behind his apartment building, interacting with everyone he meets. Murnau often shoots through windows or doors or some sort of obstruction, as if trying to remain unseen and impartial. We see The Porter at work, and the upper-class moving about. We see him with people in the working class, with children, at his daughter’s wedding reception. And along with observing the community, the film is also about how those people view The Porter.
Emil Jannings plays The Porter as a man whose value comes through his job, and the film traces his disintegration (and then his redemption) as he goes from being a confident, well-respected man to a demeaned employee, to a joke to everyone he meets. Jannings is remarkably subtle for the time and even includes a different master gestus for each stage of his character’s journey.
I shouldn’t really be surprised. The movie was made in 1925, which is the same year the great silent comedy “Seven Chances” came out. What is remarkable to me as both a writer and a filmmaker is the way both “Seven Chances” and “The Last Laugh” remain brilliant examples of character-driven storytelling. Both use numerous tracking shots to follow their main character through a sea of people. Both also pull back to a grand scale and show a world of behavior. Most films today don’t even do that. They have no sense of the movement of the world their characters inhabit. Finally, both choose to rely purely on the visual strength of the storytelling, in the way that “Seven Chances” uses dialogue cards (to show what the actors have been saying) very sparingly and “The Last Laugh” doesn’t use them at all. They aren’t needed. Every important piece of information is communicated. The rest is behavior.
The more I watch silent films, the more I desperately want to make one. There is a simultaneous challenge and freedom to the notion. To have to tell a story visually and sustain it. For most young writers, an interest in film begins with an interest in dialogue. That’s how it was for me. I’ve been able to write dialogue for a long time, and it can become a crutch. It is the easiest way to overwrite something. Some writers never progress past that point (like this guy). Other writers decide to challenge themselves (like this cat). It’s a lesson I’m constantly learning. The last thing I wrote recently was 22 pages of non-stop dialogue. It’s only okay. I’m very happy with the dialogue, but the thing is a little one-sided. It’s not writing that is going to make me a better filmmaker, if that makes any sense.
Compare that to something like “Delicious Breakfast Cereal,” which, while not great by any standards, contains less dialogue and was a very useful experiment for how to tell a story specifically with a camera. The trick is, of course, to combine the two. To know when it’s time for dialogue and when to let character action take over, and how to make them swim along side each other for a while and not fight.