Graz, 20 February 1894.
Sold barometers, portrait sketcher, stage actor; 1920—first script
Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari
; 1927–30—lived in the United States; 1931—emigrated
In London, 1 July 1944.
Films as Writer:
Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ) (Wiene); Johannes Goth (Gerhardt); Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin ( The Hunchback and the Dancer ) (Murnau); Genuine: Die Tragödie eines seltsamen Hauses (Wiene); Der Dummkopf ( The Idiot ) (Pick)
Verlogene Moral ( Brandherd ) (Kobe); Der Gang in die Nacht ( Journey into the Night ) (Murnau); Schloss Vogelöd ( The Haunted Castle ) (Murnau); Scherben ( Shattered ) (Pick); Grausige Nächte (Pick); Die Hintertreppe ( Backstairs ) (Jessner and Leni)
Vanina (von Gerlach)
Erdgeist (Jessner); Der Puppenmacher von Kiang-Ning (Wiene); Sylvester: Tragödie einer Nacht ( New Year's Eve ) (Pick)
Der Letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh ) (Murnau)
Tartüff ( Tartuffe ) (Murnau)
Berlin—die Symphonie einer Grossstadt ( Berlin—Symphony of a Big City ) (Ruttmann); Sunrise (Murnau)
Four Devils (Murnau)
Der Träumende Munde ( Dreaming Lips ) (Czinner)
Dreaming Lips (Czinner) (English language remake)
Major Barbara (Pascal); The Fourth Estate (Rotha)
World of Plenty (Rotha)
By MAYER: books—
(Editor) Innsbrucker Theater-Almanach , Innsbruck, 1914.
Sylvester: Ein Lichtspiel , Potsdam, 1924.
Sonnenaufgang (script of Sunrise ), Wiesbaden, 1971.
With Hans Janowitz, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (script), New York, 1972.
By MAYER: articles—
World Film News , September 1938.
Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1938–39.
On MAYER: books—
Tribute to Carl Mayer (pamphlet), 1947.
Hempel, Rolf, Carl Mayer: Ein Autor schreibt mit der Kamera , Berlin, 1968.
Kasten, Jurgen, Carl Mayer, Filmpoet: Ein Drehbuchautor schreibt Filmgeschichte , Berlin, Vistas Verlag, 1994.
On MAYER: articles—
Wilhelm, Wolfgang, in Sight and Sound (London), July 1944.
Revue du Cinéma (Morges, Switzerland), Spring 1947.
Daugherty, Frank, in Films in Review (New York), March 1953.
Luft, Herbert G., "Notes on the World and Work of Carl Mayer," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley, California), Summer 1954.
Filmkunst (Vienna), no. 39, 1963.
Film Culture (New York), Summer 1965.
Bianco e Nero (Rome), July-August 1968.
Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1968.
Luft, Herbert G., "Carl Mayer, Screen Author," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Fall 1968.
Bianco e Nero (Rome), September-October 1968.
Bianco e Nero (Rome), November-December 1968.
Films in Review (New York), November 1972, additions in May 1973.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1979.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1989.
Cinema & Cinema , September-December 1991.
Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Spring 1995.
* * *
An Austrian Jewish screenwriter of great imagination, Carl Mayer was thrown out on the streets at an early age along with his younger brothers by their father, an inveterate gambler who was on the point of killing himself. This began a period of adolescent stress and deprivation that was deeply to colour Mayer's outlook and darken the nature of the subject matter he chose for his outstanding work for the German silent cinema. He had to undergo psychiatric treatment for a while when his mind was considered unbalanced. At first an actor and painter during the First World War, Mayer turned to writing when he collaborated with a young Czech ex-army officer, Hans Janowitz, on the basic script for the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari —the full story behind this collaboration being revealed first by Siegfried Kracauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler . The antiauthoritarian theme of the film (as intended by these young pacifist writers) was entirely discarded as the subject passed through Erich Pommer's studio. It became rather a psychological melodrama, much discussed internationally for its Expressionistic settings and remarkable stylized acting by Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt. Mayer's name was established as a promising screenwriter and he was commissioned to write Robert Wiene's subsequent film, Genuine (the name of a seductive Oriental princess who avenges herself on the male sex which ill-uses her), a film made in a similar, Expressionistic manner but with less lasting success.
Mayer, however, put his creative roots down in film. He realized that the darkened world of the cinema with its black-and-white photographic values and its potential intimacy of approach to concentrated, emotionalized characterization offered a new form of wholly visual, psychological drama that appealed to his deepening awareness. While working with great artistic success for Arthur von Gerlach on Vanina and for Lupu Pick on Shattered , a dark and symbolistic psychological film made without the verbal intrusion of captions representing either narrative or dialogue, and on Sylvester , which Mayer called a "light-play" ( ein Lichtspiel ), alluding not only to its black-and-white images, but to the light and shadow it revealed in a man's soul, Mayer was discovering a branch of intimate, haunted drama for film that became known as the Kammerspiel (chamber-drama), a term originating from the great theatre director Max Reinhardt's promotion of intimate live theatre. Mayer was to discover his closest interpreter of this genre in F.W. Murnau, most notably in their later films, the German The Last Laugh and the American Sunrise .
Mayer's great gift to cinema was to conceive the written script as closely as possible in detailed visual terms, the result often of an advance collaboration with director and cameraman alike (notably Murnau and Karl Freund), writing in an abrupt, expressionist style of poetic prose. Many of Mayer's scripts (especially for Murnau) survive and can be found quoted by Lotte Eisner in her invaluable books Murnau and The Haunted Screen . Mayer was always deeply concerned with the camera and its potential movements, whereas Murnau (for all his strength in handling actors) rarely looked through the viewfinder. For Mayer the camera was like another actor participating directly in the action. As we have seen, he also resented the intrusive captioning between shots characteristic of the conventional silent film. The narrative continuity rested entirely on the images, on mimed action, and on facial and bodily expression.
However, after Battleship Potemkin came to Berlin astonishing audiences and filmmakers alike, Mayer's intense preoccupation with the psychological unbalance of his characters began to accommodate the much more naturalistic approach to subject matter represented by the new Soviet directors. Mayer, with his already marked social-sociological interests, was among those ready to be influenced, and The Last Laugh (with its theme of a hotel hall-porter obsessed by the class distinction given him by his grand uniform) shows a definite socially realistic interest.
When Murnau left for Hollywood in 1926, Mayer refused to go with him, preferring to write for him in Germany. Murnau's first American film, Sunrise , was adapted by Mayer from one of Sudermann's stories, The Journey to Tilsit . Robert Sherwood considered the result at the time, "the most important picture in the history of the movies." Mayer's last script for Murnau was to be Four Devils , a psychological study of acrobats in a circus setting but with a happy ending imposed by Hollywood. Mayer, still in Berlin, and preoccupied now with new concepts of realism, began to work on a documentary study of life in Berlin. This was to become Walter Ruttmann's city-symphony film Berlin , which Mayer disowned because his basic idea—the rhythm of human life in a great city—was sacrificed in order to feature the purely plastic visual rhythms of movement observed by the camera and developed through the fluidity of skilled editing.
With the coming of sound, Mayer's next continuous association was with Paul Czinner and his wife, Elizabeth Bergner, who played the lead in both films Mayer initially scripted for her husband— Ariane and Dreaming Lips . The latter was remade by the three of them in England in 1937.
Faced with the rise of Nazism in Germany, Mayer emigrated to England in 1932, where he established a close relationship with Paul Rotha, the rising young documentary director and film historian. In England Mayer acted as script consultant to Czinner (who was also in London) and many others, including Rotha, though the only credits he appears to have received were for two of Rotha's films.
Mayer died in London of cancer in 1944; his plans for films of his own (including one on the city of London, to be what Berlin should have been, in his view) never realized. Although several of his scripts, as we have seen, survive, only two have been published. Mayer published no literary work. Yet he remains one of the great creative names in early cinema.