Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Carl Mayer
by Robin Bailes
When The Artist was nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay there were people (and I know some of them) who said it was ridiculous because the film had no dialogue, an attitude which shows a complete lack of understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. Cinema is a visual medium and the most essential ability for any screenwriter is to be able to tell a story with pictures. We all know however that large chunks of stage direction can be daunting to readers. So how do you make your visual storytelling come to life on the page? Well, you could do worse than to check out the work of one of the great screenwriters of the silent era; Carl Mayer.
Mayer is best remembered for his first film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and for his many collaborations with F. W. Murnau, and although Mayer did not write Murnau’s most famous work (Nosferatu), their films together include some of the best of the late silent era. Mayer wrote 7 of Murnau’s 21 films including Sunrise, voted by Cahier du Cinema as the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema, and The Last Laugh, which has no dialogue titles at all so the visuals carry the entire narrative.
In Murnau, Mayer certainly found an ideal interpreter for his ideas, prior to The Last Laugh he had written other title-free films (notably Scherben and Sylvester for director Lupu Pick) but they did not work as well. The great achievement of The Last Laugh is not so much that you can follow it despite the absence of the titles, but that you barely notice the absence. Mayer’s work needed a great director to visualise it but it is taking nothing away from Murnau to say that Mayer was a huge factor in the success of their films. Indeed you can see how much Mayer influenced the director in the fact that Murnau made notes on the scripts of other writers in the distinctive Mayer style.
That style is the secret to Mayer’s success. He does not describe a scene per se, he tells you what you will see as a string of single images, which is of course what cinema is. To an extent he is in fact directing the scene. He wrote in brief staccato phrases, using punctuation descriptively rather than grammatically, making his scripts read like expressionist poetry, and yet their meaning is always clear. Take this excerpt from his script for the film Tartuffe;
But! Coming down the first stair:
like a shadow: almost indistinguishable.
Yes. There he stands.
Just a black shape.
Describing this in complete sentences would not only take more space but would lose much of the atmosphere. By using a question mark after ‘Tartuffe’, Mayer lets the reader know that the audience should not immediately recognise the character. The alternative would be to say ‘At first it’s just a shadowy figure but then we recognise Tartuffe’, an unwieldy and lengthy way of saying something Mayer coveys in one word. And it was not just visuals he painted, he used his unique style to express emotions in his characters as well, such as here in Schloss Vogelod;
She stays for a few more seconds. Then: She goes.
Silent. Calm. Heavy. Like lead. Now: The
Door: Then: the chatelaine. Alone.
The colons dictate the pace and thus the mood of the scene, while the description of the character’s movements says so much more than ‘sad’, ever could.
Though he wrote Murnau’s first two US films, Mayer did not move to the US with Murnau. After Murnau’s untimely death in 1931 Mayer made a successful transition into the sound era with a pair of films for director Paul Czinner. In 1932 the rise of the Nazi party forced him, as a Jew, to flee to England. He did mostly uncredited work on the scripts of others but seems never to have completed another script. He died of cancer in 1944 at the age of just 49, his contribution to film largely forgotten.
Mayer conveyed complex emotion and situations by use of image alone. I wouldn’t recommend emulating his style exactly, but there’s certainly a lesson in his ability to convey visual storytelling verbally. To my knowledge only two of Mayer’s scripts have been published, but they are worth tracking down for anyone with a serious interest in screenwriting.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.