Karl Freund, like Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, was German, and it was the German influence that was pre-eminent in the horror film genre as a whole. But as Hollywood began to import more and more of the best European film talent, particularly German (it seems that practically the whole of the German film industry ended up in Hollywood), the German influence soon became noticeable across the whole spectrum of the Hollywood product.
Karl Freund was part of this mass migration of talent, Born on 16 January 1890, in Koenigshof, Bohemia, he arrived in Hollywood in 1929. His film career had begun at the age of seventeen when he was hired as a cameraman on two small features. When he was eighteen he became a cameraman for Pathe newsreels, and this was followed by a job in Vienna filming a two-reel feature called The Ladies' Man. After that he was offered the position of chief cameraman at Union Projection KG's new studios at Templehof (they later formed the basis for UFA). When the First World War began Freund joined the Austrian army and was released after serving for only three months due to being overweight, a problem that was to remain with him all of his life (at times he weighed almost 300 lbs). During the war he again worked as a newsreel cameraman and then went back to feature films.
The first important director he worked with was Robert Wiene, who later directed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the classic Expressionist film about a sinister doctor (Werner Krauss) who is in control of a zombie-like creature (Conrad Veidt). In 1919 Freund began working for F. W. Murnau, who had then directed only one film, and photographed Satanas for him, and, in the following year, The Hunchback and The Dancer, both of which starred Conrad Veidt (Murnau later directed Nosferatu, an impressive, if unauthorized, adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Also in 1919 Freund worked on his first picture with the great German director Fritz Lang, The Golden Sea; and in 1920 he filmed, with Guido Seeger, Paul Wegener's The Golem, a remake of Wegener's 1914 production based on the old Jewish legend about a huge man of clay animated by supernatural forces.
In 1924 Freund reached the peak of his career in Germany when he photographed The Last Laugh for Murnau at UFA. His camerawork for the film, which starred Emil Jannings, contained many stylistic innovations, such as very fluid camera movements and low-key lighting, it established his reputation as a major talent. Then, in 1925, he worked on another important production--Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which he photographed with Gunther Rittau. He subsequently became involved with the development of a new color process and was persuaded by his associates in the industry that Hollywood was the place where this process could best be marketed. When he arrived in Hollywood he was put under contract almost immediately by Universal, and in 1930 he photographed six films for the studio, among them Dracula.
Dracula didn't really make full use of Freund's talents. The fluid, atmospheric camerawork that he was famous for was only utilized in the early sequences in Dracula's castle (apparently Tod Browning ignored many of Freund's suggestions). After that the picture became very much a "talkie" and rather static, but much of the credit for whatever eerie qualities it still possessed must go to Freund. It is regrettable that Freund wasn't allowed a freer hand as Dracula would have been the perfect subject for his unique form of visual poetry. But another horror film he worked on the following year, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, provided him with a better opportunity to display his skills--there are some marvellous shots of misty Paris streets--but Freund was once again hindered by uninspired directing (by Robert Florey) and a rushed shooting schedule. The Universal executives, however, were pleased enough with his work to give him his first directing assignment. This was The Mummy in 1932, and actually something of a disappointment considering that it was Freund's directing debut. Seen today it seems much too restrained and talkative, though it is far superior to Dracula in the way that it succeeds in creating its mood out of the carefully photographed settings.
Freund was then to have directed a Universal remake of The Golem but that project was abandoned, as was a proposed film entitled Bluebeard which would have starred Boris Karloff. He directed a number of non-horror films such as John Ford's Air Mail before his contract with Universal expired in 1934; one of his last for that studio was The Gift of Gab, a musical in which both Karloff and Bela Lugosi had cameo roles. The last film he ever directed was also his best. This was Mad Love for MGM in 1935--a remake of the German classic The Hands of Orlac--and starred Peter Lorre (it was his first appearance in an American film). The story concerned Dr Gogol (Lorre) who transplanted the hands of an executed murderer on to the arms of a pianist (Colin Clive). Assisted by a typically fine performance from Lorre, Freund succeeded in making a memorable film that was the exact opposite of The Mummy. Extravagant, bizarre and very fast-paced, Mad Love is almost a parody of the typical horror film of the period. It also gave Freund the opportunity to indulge in his speciality--marvellously fluid camerawork.
Still in great demand as a cameraman, Freund decided to forsake directing and return full-time to his old profession, which was apparently more secure financially. He photographed numerous feature films until the early 1950s when he entered television and began a new and successful career as a television cameraman. He seemed content in his new role and won several awards for his work on such long-running and popular shows as Our Miss Brooks and I Love Lucy, but one cannot help but regard it as something of a comedown for one of the German cinema's greatest talents. Of course, like others of his generation, he became rather bitter about the state of the film industry in his later years and considered the Hollywood product to be nothing more than "legalized pornography." He retired from television in 1959 and died in 1970 at the age of eighty.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Karl Freund films.
Find Karl Freund on eBay.com
A selection of Karl Freund in books.
A History of Horror
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