Some people live for their work, even when it isn’t the most groundbreaking or vital of gigs. In F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924), Emil Jannings plays a man whose entire life is defined by his job as the doorman of an upscale hotel. His doorman uniform isn’t just the symbol of his occupation, but serves as a marker of distinction and eminence in the working class apartment block where he lives with his niece. As the day laborers shuffle off to work each morning, Jannings can glide through the tenements like a general surveying the troops. But when the aging doorman loses his position, his world crumbles down around him, leaving him humiliated, fearful, guilt-ridden, and ridiculed… at least until an unexpected series of events befalls the poor man. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund’s silent drama/comedy tells a simple story through striking sets and compositions, inventive camera movements, and (almost) a complete lack intertitles, creating a new language of cinema in the process. (90 min.)
S. – This was like getting two movies for the price of one. The bulk of the story was a rather sombre tale of a proud man cruelly discarded by his employer because of his advancing age, capped off with a lively and highly improbable reversal of fortune. The versatility of lead actor Emil Jannings was grandly displayed, his body language easily compensating for the lack of intertitles. At times the portrayal of woefulness got a little tiresome and some of the early scenes seemed to drag on for too long without advancing the plot but once things got going it was a very engaging ride. Even though the story was simple the creative use of a number of special effects and the thoughtful scene setting gave the film many highlights. For instance the effect of the towering skyscraper falling towards Jannings as he slinks away from the hotel having stolen back his prized doorman uniform was a wonderful way of communicating his loss of equilibrium.
J. – I don’t know about two movies, perhaps a movie and a follow-up short… But I feel like we might be getting ahead of ourselves here, S. You’ve touched quite a few aspects of the film already, and I think I’d like to slow things up for a moment and tackle some of this stuff one at a time. You mentioned Emil Janning’s performance first, and that seems like a perfect place to start given that he is in pretty much every frame of the movie. And since his character isn’t named throughout the film, I think I’ll just keep calling him Jannings.
Those opening scenes that you mentioned do drag a bit and are a touch repetitive, but they also do solidly convey Jannings’ pride in his position. He stands erect and practically struts through his neighborhood on the way to work, and generally does an excellent job of conveying a contented man who is starting to feel the tinges of advanced age robbing him of his strength. The scene in which he receives his demotion is a fantastic one, and Jannings really shines in his performance, hesitating as he gets out his glasses, appearing to age about 25 years in a few seconds, and failing spectacularly as he tries to prove his vigor. Without his job and his uniform Jannings almost becomes arthritic and looks to be weighed down by huge sackfuls of shame. His quiet desperation really reaches some grim heights in the sequences built around his new job as a washroom attendant, particularly the paralysis that grips him as his in-laws learn of his demotion. And you know what’s particularly amazing, Emil Jannings was only 40 years old when he did this role; I could scarcely believe my eyes when I looked at his IMDb page. I figured he had to be at least 20 years older than that, which just goes to show the empathy and subtle skill of his performance.
S. – I’m surprised to discover Jannings was only 40, he really was convincing as a more elderly gent! Although it does explain his sprightliness when wearing the protective armour that was his doorman uniform. The scenes where he walks through the courtyard outside his apartment building proudly saluting each of his neighbours are terrific. He commanded, and was given, respect by all who passed by. Jannings does indeed seem to shrink when he is unceremoniously defrocked soon afterward.
Once the initial shock of his loss passes, as I mentioned some of the “woeful” scenes were too drawn out for my liking, a surreal element creeps in to the film. Through the use of special effects shots, we are able to experience the destabilising effect the demotion has upon his state of mind as he goes through feelings of shame, panic and denial in the window of time before his secret is discovered. These effects were integrated very convincingly into the story and eloquently relayed his inner struggle with this huge personal setback. One dream-like sequence, created with a double-exposure effect, also injected humour into the piece as he spun his own version of himself as a doorman-extraordinaire! While the effects put to use were by no means astonishing I appreciated how well they were worked into the story, the images used to warp reality were perfectly in tune with a man under stress and do not distract from or diminish the plight of the character.
J. – The dream sequence was marvelous and very funny, and that double exposure effect you mentioned when used to enter the dream was for me the visual highlight in a film of visual highlights, with that exaggerated massive revolving door appearing in front of Jannings’ sleeping face. It is such an evocative image and really speaks to the visual eloquence and inventiveness of the movie. And I loved the falling skyscraper for all the same reasons you said above, but these examples are just two of many cool things that Murnau and Freund came up with for this movie. Unlike the earlier silent films we have watched, the camera is darting all over the place in this film, and apparently this is the first movie in which a camera moves so freely. The tracking, dollying, and handheld shots in this film are particularly startling after having seen the static framing of Murnau’s Nosferatu from just two years earlier. In general, it’s rather hard to believe that the director who put together the super dull and visually drab first 30 minutes of Nosferatu was developing the sharp visuals, complex camera moves, and amazing lighting schemes used in this movie. (I wonder how much of the innovating was due to cinematographer Freund?)
We’ve seen a few German Expressionist films as part of our viewing of late, but these movies have all tended to be about crooks, killers, and monsters. It is interesting to see those same exaggerated camera angles and stark, shadowy schemes being used to tell such a small, personal story. But it does end up being very effective at telegraphing Jannings’ increasing desperation and eventual despair — it’s not quite a trip into madness like so many other of these German films but it comes close. I particularly loved when Jannings first has to descend the stairs into the bathroom to take up his new position. The creepy stairwell is a sea of black, like Jannings is hobbling down into hell.
S. – Many of the bathroom scenes are grimly sad, no-one should have to eat soup in such close proximity to a toilet. The future looks bleak indeed for the former doorman. I think the biggest success of this silent film lies in telling an engaging story without relying on intertitles. No spoken dialogue is given an intertitle, so the meat of the story gets by with a few typed lines in a letter and a scrawl of frosting across a cake, kind of amazing. But the real kicker is when the first and only standard intertitle appears right when you think Jannings’ fate is sealed. That’s when things get crazy!
J. – Do they ever. The German title of the film literally translates to The Last Man, and that’s appropriate for this film given where it was originally meant to end. That should-have-been-the-final scene is heartrending and beautifully shot, if severely depressing. It would have made for a powerful conclusion, but apparently the studio insisted on a happy ending for the movie. Murnau thought this was an awful idea but eventually gave in — sort of. So when all hope is lost, that famed single intertitle pops up to say that the author has taken pity on Jannings, and presto he inherits a fortune from an eccentric millionaire. The movie pivots on a dime and turns into a broad farce as the former doorman-cum-toilet attendant stuffs his face at the hotel’s restaurant and yucks it up with the staff and the one person who showed him any kindness after his fall from doormanship. It’s very silly stuff, and tonally and visually completely distinct from the rest of the film. As it happens, it is very funny, but it is also a horribly cynical bit of comedy that is clearly meant as a giant “fuck you” to the studio and the established tropes of popular cinema.
I’m really rather torn about the ending. I kind of admire Murnau’s brash admission that the final act makes no sense and I did find it very amusing, but it is almost like a scene from another movie got spliced in as the last reel. I rather agree with Murnau that the film should have ended with the poor doorman in dire straits and I preferred the look and feel of the pre-coda portions of the film, but then again it was such a downer that the tacked on ending and its farcical energy genuinely added to my overall enjoyment of the movie. I suppose it’s sort of like having your cake and eating it too, but it also changed from dense chocolate to angel’s food somewhere in the middle. What do you think, S.?
S. – While watching the last segment of the film I enjoyed its silliness and irreverence very much. After being inside the doorman’s head and accompanying him on his anxious decline it was a relief to be let off the hook like that (especially since we already lost Joan this week!). But it was definitely farcical after what had been a very moving and well-told story. One aspect I remember us talking about out-of-blog is how all the rich folk in the hotel are openly laughing at the doorman’s nouveau riche antics yet he is impervious, while earlier the laughing of his neighbours was more than he could bear. So while his turn of luck has catapulted him into a new social circle, his sense of identity is not (yet) dependent on this crowd. Even though it is not the original movie title The Last Laugh seems to have a dual meaning: is Murnau laughing at his audience for being so predictably easy to please? So a sweet ending with a vaguely bitter aftertaste.