Arguably the pinnacle of silent cinema, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann) (1924) is still revelatory eighty-two years later. Director Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund exceeded the gamut of film techniques to render cinematically—without the aid of intertitles (there is only one in the whole movie)—the shame and anxiety felt by an aged hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) when his position and uniform are taken away from him. Demoted to bathroom attendant, Jannings feels to ashamed to return to his lower-class neighborhood without the flashy buttons and dangling tassels that featured so prominently on former uniform. To continue the charade, he steals the uniform from work and dons it every evening on his way home, only to remove it before he arrives at work. However, when a neighbor shows up to bring Jannings soup for lunch, his true position is unmasked.
Jannings is, perhaps, most famous for magnificently playing Professor Rath in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). In The Last Laugh, he similarly plays a tragic character that suffers a loss of face and respectability. Whereas in The Blue Angel it was his lust for Marlene Dietrich’s Lola that brought him down, Jannings is in no such control of his fate in The Last Laugh. The doorman’s fall is inescapable: the body grows weak and weary with age, and less useful in the competitive work world. Jannings, with his full chest and long, elegant moustache that extends from his nose all the way up the side of his face, is the embodiment of dignity and pride. Expertly, he uses his posture and facial expressions to subtly convey his deepest thoughts: it is as though his body were an expression of his soul. So convincing is his performance and appearance that Jannings’ doorman has become one of the lasting images of film history.
Written by Carl Meyer (who also penned the 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the story achieves a rare reticence that eschews convoluted plot for direct simplicity. Were the same story to have been directed by Vittorio De Sica, The Last Laugh could easily have been a Neorealist film along the lines of De Sica’s classic Umberto D (1952), which tells the story of an elderly man who’s pension isn’t enough for him to rent a room but who is too ashamed to beg for money. Both films handle the universal theme of how difficult it is to endure the loss of one’s dignity, and the unjust personal humiliation that follows.
But The Last Laugh was the result of a much different collaboration—Murnau and Freund—and is now considered one of the highpoints of German Expressionist cinema. Expressionism is a style that proliferated in the early 1920s, noted for its creative use of chiaroscuro lighting and fantastic sets that bend and distort reality. One of the goals of Expressionism is to outwardly convey more subjective emotions. The sets, sometimes markedly fake, seem almost theatrical, yet their purpose isn’t to replicate reality but to distance itself from reality. Effects are used to push the film further into nightmare, into subjectivity.
In the case of The Last Laugh, we experience the inner anxieties of Emil Jannings. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Jannings’ hotel seems to fall forward, crushing him as he runs away after having stolen his uniform back. The montage of his neighbors gossiping about his demotion highlights gestures—a mouth moving, a hand behind an ear—like a magnifying glass. But for all its magnifications, there are moments of equal subtlety, such as Jannings flipping up his collar after leaving work for the first time without his uniform. Framed in a long-shot, his body seems tiny against the mammoth building, and his flipped collar even more insignificant. Futility abounds, but as the wind rocks his white hair, the determination of his gesture arouses great sympathy within us.
The film’s epilogue, a twist ending that the sole intertitle describes as “improbable,” is such an ironic dose of poetic justice that it doesn’t spoil the grim poignancy of the story. To see Janning flourish with such excess—mounds of food caught in his moustache’s white tufts—is to realize how impossible the outcome really is. In the final shot, Jannings rides off in his carriage, a beggar cradled at his feet ready to receive Jannings’ generosity. We see Jannings’ hand rise, turn, and wave to the hotel employees behind him—his hand and the receding structure fill the frame. The shot is elegiac, and Jannings’ wave his last gesture, a goodbye to life.
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