(1924) dir. F. W. Murnau
F. W. Murnau, the legendary director of Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), and Sunrise (1927), was not only an interesting figure, but one of the true masters of the silent film era. To be honest, up until this point, Nosferatu was the only film of his that I’d seen. Noted as one of the peaks of the Expressionist cinema, and unique in its usage of location shooting, natural landscapes, and day-for-night shooting, it’s utterly iconic. Why it took me this long to get around to seeing another of his film, well, I am regretful.
The Last Laugh is the story of a late middle-aged “hotel porter” who gets demoted, due to his age and assumed inability to keep up his work, to a washroom attendant. While this doesn’t sound overly dramatic on the surface, it is a killing change for the porter, whose deep pride in his job at the hotel door, his carefully manicured appearance, and his official uniform are part of what makes him a man. He lives in a working class neighborhood, and his proud demeanor has made him a site of pride for his family and neighbors. When it’s discovered that he is no longer a porter, but a man who holds towels for rich customers, shines their shoes, and dusts their coats, his shame is made the laughing stock of the Bowery. And this is where Murnau would have ended it.
In fact, there is an intertitle (the only one in the whole film) that explains that “this is where the story should end, but we gave it a happy ending”, a cynical stab just before the finale. Because instead of dying, miserable and humiliated, he comes into a fortune by the kind of luck that you only see in movies (a rich man dies in his arms and gives him all of his money). He is shown partying it up with the people that had been kind to him, laughing jovially, lavishing money on all. He even takes a trip to the washroom to bond with the washroom attendant. But, with the intertitle, the whole sequence is played out in its pure falsehood. The kind of thing that never could really happen. The happy ending is explicitly trite.
The real stunning things in this film are many. The cinematography, by the amazing Karl Freund, noted to possibly be the first instances of hand held camera techniques. The camera moves. The lens tracks the wonderful Emil Jannings through the houses, hotel rooms, and city streets. It zooms in on features and faces. It tracks in on significant shots. It’s utterly, entirely brilliant. The standard at the time was a static shot in this period of film. It’s a revelation!
Beyond the amazing cinematography, star Emil Jannings is also very strong. He uses his whole figure to speak to the emotional world of the porter, from great gaeity to total depression and humiliation. And additionally, as I mentioned above, the use of intertitles is almost entirely omitted. Murnau does use newspaper headlines and a note of termination to explicate certain changes in narrative, but the rest of the film is wordless, told entirely by the action and the movement. It’s another aspect to the brilliance of this film.
And while the real narrative is a real downer and the happy ending is completely cynical, and you know it, it’s ironically still uplifting to see Jannings relishing his new-found fortune and sharing it with the one man who was kind to him in his degradation. I guess that speaks to the power of expectation, the connection to character, that one has. The manipulation of the narrative and the irony of the distancing devices.