One of the great silent pictures
, 19 Feb 2006
F W Murnau (1888 - 1931) was one of the masters of early German cinema, and two or three of his films have every right to be included in any top 100 selection of all time: both Nosferatu (1992) and Sunrise (1929) are remarkable artistic achievements, which still hold the viewer today. Immediately behind these is The Last Laugh, which was produced as something akin to a calling card by Murnau and his studio UFA, and which duly created a stir when it was exhibited overseas. So successful was the film that both star and director were offered American studio contracts.
If Nosferatu's subtitle is 'a symphony of horror' and Sunrise's 'a song of two humans', then The Last Laugh is more of a concerto, a three movement showcase for the larger-than-life presence of legendary German actor Emil Jannings. Jannings, who also worked for Murnau in such productions as Faust (1926) and specialised in towering figures such as Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Louis XVI, Danton and Othello on screen, often balanced precariously between inspirational character acting and outrageous ham. In the present film he plays an unnamed hotel porter - a character that's miles away from the grand historical personages he regularly portrayed. Self-important and proud, he is chief doorman at the Hotel Atlantic (itself a superbly realised set, which anticipates the studio-fabricated glories of Sunrise) until, on the excuse of a perceived infirmity, he is abruptly demoted, humiliated and given a much more lowly position as a lavatory attendant. For most of its length The Last Laugh is a tragedy, its pathos made all the greater by the fact that contemporary audiences were only too used to associating Jannings on screen with great and powerful men. More than this, his tragedy 'could only be a German story,' wrote the critic Lotte Eisner as 'it could only happen in a country where the uniform (as it was at the time the film was made) was more than God.' The porter's grand uniform is seen as source of power, as evinced by the respect he receives from his friends and neighbours. Once stripped of status, he just as quickly loses his dignity and suffers collapse. Jannings gives a marvellous, if characteristically ripe, performance as the old man, ranging from magniloquence to humbleness, and from trauma to ironic exultation. Much of this is achieved in the emphatic silent manner, familiar from cinema of this period, but Jannings was a great enough actor to reveal character just as effectively through the slope of his shoulders or the mere bend of a leg. His porter is an unforgettable creation, whose downfall and recovery stays in the mind long after the film is finished, and 80 years after it was completed.
If that wasn't enough, then The Last Laugh also demonstrates a technical brilliance that marks it out as one of the greatest films of its day. Murnau and his cameraman, the legendary Karl Freund, worked together to come up with what they called 'the unchained camera' - a cinema which liberated the image through a succession of dollys, tracking movements, dialectical montage, close-ups as well as some experimental set ups, which can still astonish today. From the very first shot of the film (a stunning image, taken from inside of a lift before the camera descends out in the lobby of the hotel) it announces its visual audacity, which reaches its celebrated zenith during the porter's drunken celebration of his niece's wedding where Freund uses avant-garde POV shots, taken with the camera strapped to his chest, before progressing onto the porter's dream shot crazily, through lenses smeared with Vaseline. The Last Laugh is also noticeable for an almost complete absence of intertitles, revealing Murnau's predilection for creating 'pure cinema', free of all distraction.
American producers and directors were fascinated by the results, and perplexed as to how some of the effects had been achieved. Viewers today, used to Industrial Light and Magic, are more likely to have their curiosity exercised by the last act of the film, which marks a sudden departure from the source, Gogol's The Overcoat. After an hour of deepening tragedy, we are told by the film that 'Here the story should really end for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.' Jannings suggested an end to the film that was accepted, and which still surprises audiences. It has attracted critical discussion almost as much as does the similarly disorientating end does in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (aka: Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, 1920), also scripted by Carl Meyer: in a sudden turnabout, the ex-doorman inherits all the wealth of an eccentric millionaire who dies in his lavatory, and departs the hotel in triumphant luxury.
How one accepts the end of the film is a matter of preference. As an inversion of natural expectations, through an outrageous deus ex machina, it certainly works as ironic commentary on all that has gone before. There's an element of wishful thinking about closing events even suggests a dream sequence, which would be an apt closure given what we have already experienced in the film. Some critics have seen the ending as a deliberate parody of a 'happy ending' or even as a metaphor for the money due to the struggling UFA studio from the talent-sharing deal with American studios. However interpreted, the old man's timely fortune remains a satisfying conclusion to a film which, without some last injection of hope into the narrative, ran the risk of being too dour.
The original German title to the film was Der Letzte Mann ('The Last Man'), which was changed for the English language release, as another film already existed with this name. The original German title, with its connotation of 'the least of men,' puts the emphasis squarely back on the main part of the film - surely Murnau and Meyer's principal intention. The Last Laugh remains one of the most important films of the silent screen, a testimony to several major talents working at the height of their powers, and in the newly restored DVD reissue it can be highly recommended.
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