The Last Laugh was the first of Murnau's films I saw and by the time the film had ended my eyes were swimming pools. The Last Laugh is the penultimate expressionistic street film, full of sets that look both realistic and fantastic at the same time, unsettling multiple exposures, operatic performances whose weight you can really feel on your chest, and a magic that few movies made after audio took over have been able to tap.
Carl Mayer, the co-writer on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and one of the chief minds behind the excellence of German film in the 1920's, is given by many writers the lion's share of credit for The Last Laugh. Murnau is sometimes shrugged off with Karl Freund, the film's cameraman, as merely part of the team that executed Mayer's vision. Mayer's idea was to move the camera, and keep moving it through space to tell this simple story.
The camera movement in this film had a profound effect on world cinema. The camera movement is smooth and emotional - it draws the viewer into the film much more carefully than does the nonstop camera movement of so many films today. It is not simply the movement of the camera that makes this film so exceptional, instead it is the careful choreography of the camera around and between people and objects.
The film begins with such movement, a trip down an open elevator and through the busy lobby of the Hotel Atlantic. The movement continues straight through the hotel's revolving doors to the sidewalk and rain of the city outside. The main character, the Last Man (Letze Mann) of the original German title, is the hotel doorman, an imposing but elderly man with an enormous mustache that continues all the way to his sideburns past an amazing flourish of hair that extends from his cheeks.
The actor who plays the man is Emil Jannings in a performance through the entire range of emotions. At first his uniform and position define him. He is an important person, a respected person. But he is getting older and has trouble carrying a large trunk from a car to the hotel and needs a few minutes to recuperate. The hotel manager witnesses this and the next day the doorman finds that he has been replaced and demoted to washroom attendant. The demotion leads to ostracism - his neighbors and even his own family rejects him.
Just when things seem as low as they can get for the man, the film breaks the fourth wall and presents us with the only intertitle we shall see in this silent film. The title says that ordinarily the story should end here, for the man's life will continue a downward spiral to his death. But instead, the author has taken mercy on his character and presented us with a highly improbable epilogue.
In the epilogue, the man inherits a vast sum of money from an eccentric millionaire. Although the film is often faulted for its happy and improbable ending, the epilogue is so tinged with giddy irony that I could not imagine the film without it. It reminds me of another brilliant ending, that of Chaplin's short film Easy Street (1916), in which all wrongs have been righted and all bullies subdued through the power of love and forgiveness (and don't forget that cast iron stove falling onto the villain's head).
In The Last Laugh the man derives his power and swagger from his uniform, from alcohol and from wealth; without at least one of the three he is a stooped wreck of a human being. He has a habit of stroking his mustache, a habit that disappears when he loses his uniform. After he steals it and quickly pulls it over his shoulders, the first thing he does is stroke that mustache.
After stealing the uniform he attends his daughter's wedding reception and what follows is one of my favorite sequences in all of Murnau's work. The man's drunkenness is portrayed by a camera that staggers across the room (it was actually strapped onto the chest of cameraman Karl Freund and then he stumbled). The man soon drifts off to a fantasy dream of huge blurs and revolving doors that reach to the sky. In the dream he lifts with one hand a chest that six men could not budge and to the amazement of an audience of blur-people hurls the trunk up and down, always catching it perfectly with his one extended arm.
The Last Laugh tempers it pathos and seriousness with such pure silliness, and still makes my eyes moist with that strange and lovely combination.
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Copyright © 1997 John Akre