Tuesday, October 16, 2012

CGAA Cinema: Der Letzte Mann aka The Last Laugh (Directed by F.W Murnau, 1924)

"F.W. Murnau's German silent classic The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann) stars Emil Jannings as the doorman of a posh Berlin hotel. Fiercely proud of his job, Jannings comports himself like a general in his resplendent costume, and is treated like royalty by his friends and neighbors. The hotel's insensitive new manager, noting that Jannings seems winded after carrying several heavy pieces of luggage for a patron, decides that the old man is no longer up to his job. The manager demotes Jannings to men's washroom attendant, and the effect is disastrous on the man's prestige and self-esteem." http://www.moviefone.com/movie/the-last-laugh/1020137/synopsis

Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1924 German film Der Letzte Mann or The Last Laugh ushered in a new era of cinematic techniques which would greatly influence the way audiences engaged with cinema by turning the camera into a character within the film itself. In my last couple of posts about silent cinema, I've emphasised the way silent film is more than just a means to an end, and arguably The Last Laugh is the epitome of silent film as an expressive and unique aesthetic.

An unusual fable of modern society, within an Expressionist style. The film feels totally original from the get-go.  Essentially it is a singular character story with most of the action focusing on the Doorman or seen through his eyes. He’s the only character afforded close-ups in the film . The camera seems to view the others around him with a resentful distance.

Karl Freund's wandering camera is famous for it’s inventiveness. Established in The Last Laugh are a number of techniques which have become standard in modern filmmaking. No longer is the camera solely a tool to capture action, it becomes a means to tell a story. Unusual methods create some of the first examples of tracking shots and hand-held camera aesthetic. The loose movement perfectly captures a deliriously exuberant descent into madness. The audiences experiences the action  unlike anything before it.

The hotel, for which the majority of the film is set, is gloriously designed. Structurally, it is exaggerated to reflect the prestige the Doorman associates with it and closes in on him as his despair deepens. It seems to be almost sentitent, as if it reacts to the emotional resonance given off by the Doorman. There’s no doubt The Last Laugh greatly influenced the atmosphere and style of The Overlook in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Atlantic is a web of windows, shadowy corridors and infinite space. We often find ourselves looking through doors and glass panes as if the hotel is infecting the film of the camera. It’s inhabitants are spectres. A time and place which cares little for the small story of a giant man.


Emil Jannings is brilliant. His dominating physique - exaggerated by his militaristic uniform - puts forth both a proud and pathetic figure. The moment of realisation when it becomes clear his beloved job is no longer his, is heartbreaking. Unusually The Last Laugh has no intertitles to relay character dialogue, meaning the story has to be entirely told through  pantomime acting and camera control. A clear step forward for cinematic storytelling. Viewed in context, this was an amazingly brave and ambitious decision but one which feels remarkably well executed, thanks to the exquisite acting.  Jannings is hugely expressive and he gives one of the most emotionally draining screen performances of all time. We feel each projected moment with equal force - every stagger and every pained expression carries with it an emotional weight. It's remarkable at times. Later in his life, which is strangely foreshadowed in the film, Jannings, the once internationally famous, Oscar winning actor, would be disgraced as his shameful association with Nazi propaganda films killed off his career entirely. After 1945 he would never act again. As Roger Ebert puts it, ‘The coat no longer fit.’

In a recession-hit modern world driven by the continued pursual of all that is new and exciting, the film’s story is as relevant today as it was back in 1924.  As it reaches a sullen climax you begin to wonder just where the laughs are going to come from. In a moment of director-god divine intervention- or more likely, meddling film producers who thought the original ending too miserable – a strange moment of fate leads the Doorman to great riches.  Thus he has his last laugh. It’s a either a clever piece of self-referentiality, or a bad ending.

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