The Last Laugh (1924)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Writer: Carl Mayer

Producer: Erich Pommer

Photography: Robert Baberske, Karl Freund

Music: Giuseppe Becce, Timothy Brock, Peter Schirmann

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda

After scholar Gerald Mast’s overwhelming praise in A Short History of the Movies, I decided to check out The Last Laugh (1924) for myself. I must say, it’s everything Mast said it was, and more.  The film assembles the best filmmakers that ‘20s Germany had to offer – director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), producer Erich Pommer (Metropolis), screenwriter Carl Mayer (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), cinematographer Karl Freund (Metropolis), production designers Walter Rohrig and Robert Herlth (Destiny) and lead actor Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel). It also comes just two years after Murnau’s first big success, Nosferatu (1922), so some might read the opening title card as Murnau’s own fear that his sudden fame could be temporary – “One day you are preeminent, respected by all. … But what will you be tomorrow?”

While these words provide the theme for the rest of the film, the title card itself is the last until the epilogue.  What bravery by Murnau to make a silent film without title cards! The decision reflects his desire to show rather than tell, which should be the goal of all filmmakers. It was this decision that forced Murnau to push the limits of both the moving and subjective camera — techniques that fit perfectly into the Kammerspiel subset of the German Expressionist movement. Rather than the more visually expressionistic style often equated with the movement (hard shadows, distorted sets, exaggerated furniture), the Kammerspiel films were more psychologically expressionistic and geared toward fewer characters.

In this case, Murnau examines the psychology of a single hotel doorman (Jannings), whose pride and self-worth hinges on one thing – his hotel uniform. While wearing his brass-buttoned jacket, the doorman’s posture is upright and confident, as he salutes others like a high-ranking officer. However, when he is stripped of his jacket and demoted to the role of janitor, he loses all pride, walking around hunched over and without purpose.

To express this transformation, Murnau uses a probing camera that takes us inside the doorman’s thoughts and feelings. This is apparent from the film’s opening scene, where the camera rides down the hotel elevator, dollies through the lobby and approaches the hotel’s revolving door to peer outside. This is the doorman’s whole existence, what he lives for — the few dozen feet from the elevator to the revolving door. What’s more, the revolving door comes to symbolize the proverbial revolving door of fame, Murnau’s “here today gone tomorrow” worldview (we later get a shot of Jannings going out the revolving door while his replacement comes in the other side).

Even more telling is the scene where Jannings gets his reassignment letter. Gazing at Jannings through the transparent pane of a glass door, the camera pushes in to a MCU, and the glass dissolves away. We then cut to a POV shot of Jannings reading the letter. As he reads, an oval-shaped hole appears in the center of the letter, showing Jannings’ vision of the janitor he’s been assigned to replace. Then, the letter’s text begins to blur, symbolizing his distress. Moments later, as Jannings is forced to surrender his jacket, Murnau dollies in on the jacket hanging in the boss’ closet, a cinematic representation of his protagonist’s longing for his lost identity.

The POV shot returns in a later scene where Jannings gets drunk. Naturally, it’s a spinning camera to represent a drunkard’s POV. Working concurrently with this is a spectacular shot of Jannings’ drunken face as the camera appears attached to his body. As Jannings wobbles, so does the room around him. It’s the same technique used 50 years later in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), following a drunken Harvey Keitel to the ground, and 80 years later in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), following his characters’ drugged-out movements.

The drunkenness soon leads into a dream sequence, where Jannings imagines himself back working as a doorman. The sequence, showing a world completely askew, is a bracketed example of more traditional German Expressionism. As Mast writes, the revolving door becomes gigantic, shadows become exaggerated and characters’ faces appear as if stretched in a funhouse mirror.

This collection of faces becomes an important motif, as it’s the characters around Jannings who, in his mind, determine his status and worth. We’re introduced to these neighbors with a stationary camera that hangs out in the street, observing the community as night turns to day. Later, the camera similarly hangs outside an apartment door and pans left to see a nosy neighbor emerge from her apartment to overhear the news that Jannings has been demoted. As this woman spreads the news to her neighbors, Murnau pans from one balcony to another, weaving a tapestry of mean-spirited gossip.

Such camera movement from person to person is repeated in the film’s epilogue, where high society folks read of a lucky man who has just won the lottery. Here, Murnau’s camera drifts through a dining room in a 55-second single take, moving from person to person, table to table,  until finally settling on a single table, where a stack of food is removed (in slow disclosure) to reveal Jannings as the lottery winner. It’s a tacked-on happy ending done at the behest of Pommer, the same producer who had insisted upon the framing device in Caligari.

I agree with Mast that the epilogue is not true to the rest of the film, and a more fitting ending would have been the shot of a distraught Jannings cowering in the bathroom.  Unfortunately, there is no way for a “director’s cut” to remove the epilogue, as it would simultaneously remove Jannings’ “last laugh” and cancel out the title. I must, however, give Murnau and screenwriter Mayer credit, as they found a clever way to please the producer. Rather than playing it straight, they insert a title card that says, “Here, in the place of his disgrace, the old man wastes away miserably for the rest of his life. And the story would end here. However – the author has decided to look after this person, long after he has been abandoned by all the others, by giving him an epilogue where things turn out – unfortunately as they seldom do in real life.” In this way, Murnau and Mayer have at least salvaged some semblance of artistry, taking a post-modern slant that acknowledges a writer’s control of his characters.

Which brings us back to our opening question. Does the opening title card express Murnau’s post-Nosferatu fear of keeping his success going? The warning echoes throughout the film: “One day you are preeminent, respected by all. … But what will you be tomorrow?”  Luckily for us, the answer is clear. The Last Laugh has become renowned as the film that freed the camera from its static chains and made way for Murnau’s first Hollywood film, Sunrise (1927), to win the top prize at the inaugural Academy Awards (there were two Best Pictures the first year; Wings as Best Production, and Sunrise as Unique and Artistic Production). Even though he would die of a car accident in 1931, it seems Murnau has gotten the last laugh — his films will live forever.

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