Karl Freund: Cinema’s Longest Shadow

There are times when it seems unimaginable that a certain artist could have ever been forgotten. The skill in their work and the influence of their style loom so largely in film history that it feels impossible this person isn’t constantly recognised for those accomplishments. It’s hard to argue that there is a greater distance between an artist’s cinematic accomplishments and his perceived historical significance than that of Karl Freund. A heavyset man with a devilish twinkle in his eye, he looked like the halfway point between Alfred Hitchcock and Dr. Caligari.

Seasoned horror fans know Freund as the director of Universal’s classic monster film The Mummy. Aficionados with deep-cut tastes know he directed Mad Love, 1935’s adaptation of The Hands of Orlac starring Peter Lorre and Colin Clive. A smaller group of horror fans know he was the cinematographer on the original 1931 Dracula. When Tod Browning was gone for a good portion of the shoot, Freund was responsible for much of the actual directing, which he did uncredited.

Being an integral part of the visual design of two Universal horror classics (three, if you count his work as a cinematographer on 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue) should have had him in the running for horror royalty all on its own. The two Oscars he won (including Best Cinematography for 1937’s The Good Earth) are further evidence of his brilliance. However, unlike many other forgotten filmmakers whose careers have found late-era re-evaluation, Freund is strangely forgotten as an artist while his actual accomplishments are acknowledged as foundational elements of cinema itself.

That might sound like a grand claim until you remember that Freund was the cinematographer on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. That already seems like enough, doesn’t it? That film was (and still is) such an astounding technical achievement that there’s no need to elaborate further, right?
He did much more than that, though. He was also the cinematographer for F.W. Murnau on his groundbreaking silent film The Last Laugh, generally considered one of the most important films of all time. During the making of that movie, Freund invented the Entfesselte Kamera technique, which translates to “unchained camera.”

Metropolis (1927)

Freund was literally the first person to ever MOVE a camera while it was filming. Every single tilt, zoom, pan, dolly, or crane shot that has ever happened owes its existence to Freund. So there’s that.

The same year he captured the fantastical futuristic city of Metropolis in film, he also helped Walter Ruttmann capture a real, bustling city of the modern world in the innovative vérité documentary Berlin: Symphony of a City. He invented new photographic techniques, including the first use of hidden cameras, to capture Berlin’s vibrant city life with a previously unimaginable level of realism.

So how is it that we know so little about Freund and his career? It must be that aside from his work in film, he just led a relatively uninteresting and uneventful life. That must be the explanation.

Or not.

Remember when Freund worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis? It wasn’t their first collaboration, as Freund was the cinematographer on Lang’s adventure serial Spiders (which was an enormous influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark). Metropolis was their final collaboration, however. Want to know why? In between Spiders and Metropolis, Freund became convinced that Lang and his mistress murdered Lang’s wife and made it look like a suicide.

Freund was one of the first people to the scene of her death, and he never believed the suicide cover story. Freund worked with Lang on Metropolis after genuinely (and publicly) stating that Lang was probably a wife killer. Can you imagine the tension on that set?

It must have galled Freund to no end when he watched Lang’s M years later, a film featuring a monstrous killer who nonetheless gets a sympathetic closing monologue lamenting his inability to control his murderous tendencies. Peter Lorre’s child killer contorts and cries out: “I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I’m pursued by ghosts.” How Freund must have wanted to pummel Lang for the audacity to give a sympathetic voice to that character who felt nothing but egocentric suffering from the haunting memories of those he killed.

Is it possible, then, that four years later, Freund would cast Lorre in his own film, Mad Love, to capture what he felt was a more accurate cinematic portrayal of Lang? In Mad Love, Lorre’s Dr. Gogol is a maniacal surgeon so obsessed with a married woman that he would lie and manipulate, even torture and disfigure, to gain the woman he so feverishly desires.

Freund’s fraught relationship with Lang during the making of Metropolis isn’t his only instance of an uncomfortable convergence between career accomplishment and personal tragedy. Remember his uncredited directing work on Dracula?

That film was released to the world to enormous box office success on February 14, 1931. It wasn’t lost on Freund that he was essentially remaking the genre-defining (and nearly destroyed) German expressionist classic Nosferatu, directed by his friend and 10-time film collaborator F.W. Murnau. Those were large shoes to fill, but Freund had always felt Murnau was over-credited in their work together. If anyone was up to the task of following Murnau on that story, Freund believed he was the one.

So how was Dracula received by Murnau? Freund probably never found out. On March 11, less than one month after Dracula was released and while it still smashed box office records, Murnau died from a head injury sustained in a car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway. The spectre of Murnau would forever hang over Dracula’s release. Only 11 people attended Murnau’s funeral, and Freund was not one of them. Perhaps that was because Lang gave the eulogy.

Those stories alone make Freund’s life the stuff of classic Tinseltown noir, the kind of film a young Nicholas Ray could have made with Sydney Greenstreet in the lead role. But those stories only begin to scratch the surface of a life teeming with tragedy and triumph.

Drafted to military service in World War I, Freund was sent back to civilian life after three months because of obesity and alcoholism, crippling behaviors which he first intentionally began in order to get out of combat, but which haunted him for the rest of his life. Years later, Freund worked uncredited as the cinematographer on All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. By the time World War II arrived, Freund was already in Hollywood, but that didn’t stop him from making a public stance against Hitler when he and other German filmmaker emigres like Ernst Lubitsch ignored demands from the Nazi party that they return to their home country.

The Mummy (1932)

The historical events of Freund’s life were so plentiful that stories like the following ones are relegated to quick mentions in these final paragraphs: he invented the incident light meter that became one of the most-used tools in the world of photography; Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle was ready to fire a then-unknown Bette Davis until Freund said she had lovely eyes and suggested she be cast in her film debut, Bad Sister. After inventing much of the language of cinema, he also reinvented the medium of television by teaming with Lucille Ball to create the three-camera lighting set-up for I Love Lucy, an innovative system that is still used in modern sitcoms to this day.

In an era when eccentric filmmakers and cult films have entire documentaries and books dedicated to them, how is it that one of the most important filmmakers in cinema history is a silent shadow on the wall? An Amazon search of his name brings up a total of zero biographies about him, and his place in cinema history is relegated to minor appearances in the stories of Murnau, Browning, Lang, and a handful of others.

So what can be done about the tragedy that is Freund’s forgotten career? The truth is, the responsibility now lies with film lovers. We can share his work, tell his stories, and push the labels that own his films to release his work so new generations can recognize his genius.

I, for one, hope to make a documentary about him; The Facts and Fantasias of Karl Freund, Film Pioneer would be dedicated to illuminating the life of one of the most important figures in the history of cinema. One whose name is as forgotten as his influences and achievements are commonplace. Until then, we can only hope that cinephiles will rediscover and embrace his work, so modern cinema can come to recognize the incredible legacy he left behind.

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