24/11/2016

The Last Warning - Where Did Superimposition Go?

Quick Thoughts: The Last Warning

A 1929 silent mystery set in a theatre haunted by the murder of a prolific actor.


The Last Warning is a film I can't help but recommend. I'm not a fan of mysteries however. As is evident in this film, mysteries have a heavy focus on plot, on pushing onto the next beat and revealing the next twist or revelation in a story. There's nothing bad about this. It's simply an approach to story telling that I don't like too much. I prefer stories centred on character, subtext and other pretentious things. Despite all of this though, The Last Warning is a monumental example of late silent filmmaking. Moreover, with Paul Leni helming this picture, we see the huge influence German Expressionism had over American horror/mystery movies. The expressionistic style is evident in the set design, the compact frame, lighting and the strong compositions. All of this creates a warm tone that draws you into the film, immersing you into the narrative. This is second to the direction though. There are so many inventive shots that play with perspective in a way you hardly see outside of the silent genre. In this, I mean to say there's the use of swinging camera, juddering POV, sweeping moves toward pictures, under curtains and a plethora of other things. This produces a directorial style that is very much like Hitchcock's. The reason for this is in the use of the camera as a character, as an observer trying to get the best view of this unfolding plot. For all of this, I'm ultimately left with a question of where did this go? Where has this succinct focus on playful direction gone? I think the answer lies in both the period this film is in and the director himself. Silent films had a heavy focus on direction, on the camera telling the story. Add to this the explicitness of the German Expressionist style brought by Leni and it becomes almost inevitable that the camera will become such a prominent figure in the film - and in films like it. Furthermore, what seems to have contributed to the move away from this style of direction is the transition into sound. And this is a double-edged sword. What this influx of sound technology gave us were films with a focus shifted onto narrative - those I have a preference to. Because of this we see the simple stories of the silent era as a world apart from what we have now. Over the last almost 90-ish years, there has been a cinematic focus on telling a story almost tantamount to a writer's focus, with what's in the frame as the crux of a film. In the silent era, through German Expressionism, Soviet Montage and French Impressionism, the cinematic focus was much more photographical with a focus on the frame itself - the camera telling the story. What this led to was the height of silent era as perfectly represented by films such as The Last Warning. My favourite example of this is in the opening of the film - in the use of superimposition. In other words, layering images on top of each other. This is a such a great technique that has slowly withered away with the introduction of colour and concentration on character and narrative. Superimposition requires a lot of negative space in the frame, something afforded with black and white photography which explains why it doesn't fit into the style of modern films. But, superimposition provides such a great effect that's not only astounding, that produces awe-inspiring images, but has the ability to layer meaning to a scene.

For this change in focus over the ages in films, I think this film then stands as testament to why silent films are very important to both audience and filmmakers. They give perspective on what cinema can do, shattering illusions of what we often tell ourselves cinema dogmatically is. Whether it's just the appreciation of superimposition, or other camera techniques, this is definitely a film to watch as to experience a different side of cinema you won't see so explicitly nowadays.

Thanks to James Lloyd, @CaptainJimDandy, for recommending this film to me.

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