The Last Laugh (1924)

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The Last Laugh (1924). 91 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Emil Jannings (as hotel doorman), Maly Delschaft (as his niece), Max Hiller (as her bridegroom), Emilie Kurz (as bridegroom’s aunt), Hans Unterkircher (as hotel manager), Olaf Storm (as young guest), Hermann Vallentin (as guest with pot belly), Georg John (as night watchman), and Emmy Wyda (as thin neighbor). Cinematography by Karl Freund.

The plot of The Last Laugh can be encapsulated in a simple sentence: an anonymous hotel doorman is demoted. Despite its simple premise, however, this silent movie is an astonishingly profound depiction of human misery. Relying on camera movement and gesture to convey meaning throughout, and using only one title card during its 91-minute running time, The Last Laugh relies more than most films on visual elements to tell its story. It is essential viewing for anyone who cares about early movies.

An enthusiastic hotel doorman is observed drinking on the job one day by the hotel manager. The next day, when the doorman comes into work, he sees another man working in his place. The manager speaks with the former doorman, confiscates his uniform, locks it away in a cabinet, and assigns him work as an attendant in the washroom. The man is crushed. His niece is getting married that day, and he steals his old uniform so that he can wear it to the reception and no one will know of his disgrace. The day after the wedding, he returns to work, placing the stolen doorman uniform in a train checkroom, and suffers a series of humiliations in the washroom. He retrieves the doorman uniform at night to wear back home, but unbeknownst to him a nosy neighbor discovers him working in the washroom and tells everyone in the tenement complex about his demotion. They gather around to laugh at him. His niece and her family reject him. He returns to work to apparently sleep in the washroom, catatonically depressed, where the night watchman attempts to comfort him before leaving him.

A title card, the only one in the film, announces an important transition:

Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.

We then learn that a millionaire has died in the washroom in the former doorman’s arms; the millionaire’s will states that his fortune goes to whoever is holding him as he dies. The former doorman now lives the high life. He treats his friend, the night watchman, to a sumptuous feast at the hotel, then proceeds with him out to a lavish carriage, bestowing tips upon everyone in his path. He seems fully restored to his old self as the carriage departs the hotel.

The movie is ostensibly about the uniform: what it does to us, what we bring to it, and what we are left with when it is taken away from us. In the case of the doorman, in uniform he is towering (shot from low angles to make actor Emil Jannings look huge), commanding, and officious. People salute him, even his neighbors, and he salutes back, as if he were a member of the military. His household cares for the uniform with reverence. We see his niece shaking the dust from it in the morning and her in-law sewing a new button to it in a later scene. When it is taken from him, it is locked away in a cabinet as something precious, sacrosanct. Without it, he is destroyed.

The esteemed German film critic Lotte H. Eisner said that The Last Laugh “is pre-eminently a German tragedy, and can only be understood in a country where uniform is king, not to say god. A non-German mind will have difficulty in comprehending all its tragic implications.” What Eisner has to say may be true, but I am not convinced that this movie is solely about German culture, nor that it is solely about the uniform. It seems to me to be in a broader sense a depiction of extreme depression and humiliation—triggered by demotion and the forfeiture of the doorman’s uniform, yes, but ultimately saying more to us about the human capacity for suffering. Its universal qualities are evident in its lack of language and idiosyncratic customs, and in the absence of precise references to time and names for any of its characters. In that regard, it resembles Murnau’s later Sunrise (1927), whose characters are similarly nameless. The Last Laugh’s generally applicable nature causes it to transcend the genre it is often associated with, the Kammerspielfilm—chamber drama about lower-middle-class Germans. Instead, The Last Laugh, like Sunrise, is more of a psychological folk tale.

The psychological component is heightened as a result of the film’s silent reliance on gesture and body position to convey meaning. Jannings provides an excellent rendition of catatonic depression: the slow movement, the lack of speech, the slouching, the crouching, the odd poses that he discovers and stays in, as if permanently bent over or crippled. We watch him in his work as washroom attendant as he fumbles horribly, slowly, and painfully. In the final scene of the tragic section where he spends the night in the washroom, it is nearly unbearable to watch him slouched over on the attendant’s chair in the septic environment.

A strange detail becomes very important in this scene. In the dark washroom, the night watchman, who has come to help the man and has given him his coat, shines a flashlight on the doorman’s face from afar, as if to revive him. But the doorman looks so pained, so enfeebled in the bright light. The light that would ordinarily connect us with a performer, much like a spotlight, here causes us to want to turn away—what we see is too much to witness in the harsh illumination head-on. This scene looks forward to Jannings’s performance as Professor Rath in The Blue Angel (1930); his character in that movie joins an acting troupe, goes mad, and is forced to perform in a humiliating magic show, also under the spotlight in a pitiful position.

But in a way, as hard as it is to watch the old man in the dark, the flashlight of The Last Laugh also highlights his remaining humanity by focusing our attention on his face. The illumination of Jannings’s face in the dark washroom underscores, in a symbolic way, the film’s dedication to the intense depiction of his psychological transformation, even though that transformation is horrible to see. The light also crucially reminds us of the cinema’s job, which is to hold a spotlight to stories that we might not otherwise see. Perhaps we are like the guests at the late-night, lavish parties in the hotel in whose bathroom the doorman crouches, or perhaps we are more like the busy occupants of his tenement building. In either case, the film says, we may be oblivious to experiences like his, which take place under the cover of night deep in the bowels of a large hotel.

The question of whether we are like the hotel guests or like the man’s neighbors in the tenement becomes especially relevant in the film’s final sequence. The only title card in the movie ushers in the transition from the dire washroom environment to the indulgent scene in the hotel dining room, where we find the doorman has become a millionaire. Yet we could understand everything that follows without the intertitle, and the director seems keen to apologize for it in the language of the card itself. Perhaps it is right for him to apologize. The comic ending seems so implausible, perhaps also unnecessary. The latter seems particularly true because the movie does not prepare us for this conclusion and also because we might think that a more suitable ending would be for him to be reinstated in his position as doorman, a job that he could perform with pride, not transformed into a man with a million dollars to spare and no need to work or wear a uniform again.

Watching the film’s final comedic turn, with its unsatisfying conclusion, we might wonder who is really having the last laugh of the movie’s English title. Is it the doorman who gets the last laugh? Or is it the hotel guests who chuckle over his oblivious buffoonery as he spends a fortune on a lavish feast for the night watchman and himself? Typically, the expression “the last laugh” implies a kind of proleptic Schadenfreude. We may laugh at a man today, but tomorrow the proverbial tables may turn, and he may laugh at us. If the doorman’s last laugh is a kind of revenge, however, we might wonder why he does not return to the tenement where he lives to laugh at his family and his neighbors, who behaved so cruelly to him earlier and, in fact, actually laughed at him. We also do not see him laughing at the movie’s elites. Instead we see him imitating them, poorly. Overall, the translated English title is a weak fit.

The film’s original German title, Der letzte Mann (“The Last Man”), works better, although it is also ambiguous. We might wonder in what sense the doorman is the last man. Perhaps, as Roger Ebert suggests, Der letzte Mann means “the previous man”—in other words, the triumphant man as doorman before he loses his job. Possibly, in the sense of “the previous man,” it could also mean the man prior to the happy man of the artificial ending: the depressed man, the devastated man. Along those lines, Der letzte Mann can also mean simply “the wretched man,” evoking the German saying that is related to Christ’s teaching in the Gospels, “Wer heute der Letzte ist, kann Morgen wieder der Erste sein” (“Whoever is today the last [in fortune, rank, etc.] can tomorrow be first”). This interpretation resonates strongly with the way that the German letzt is used idiomatically. It is thus fitting that this film with its folkloric quality connects us so explicitly with proverbial German.

In this last interpretation, although the German title alludes to a proverb that implies a happy ending, the language of the title only addresses the tragic side of that expression. Accordingly, we might ask why the tragic portion seems so much more effective. The answer to this question lies partly in the way that the tragedy asks us to feel for the doorman. I think particularly of the sequence when he has stolen his former uniform, puts it on, and walks through the tenement grounds saluting people as is his custom. But they all know that he has been demoted, and they gather not to salute back, but to laugh. His shame is overwhelming, and the performances here are excellent, it is true, but there is something more. The camera moves along the ground with the man as he progresses through the courtyard, as we see more and more people emerge from doorways, windows, and fire escapes to crowd around and laugh. The more the camera travels, the more people we see deriding him. It is overwhelming, crushing. Such movement was possible due to cinematographer Karl Freund’s technique of the entfesselte Kamera (“unchained camera”); Freund had the camera attached to mobile implements and his own moving body in order to capture long tracking shots, to dip the camera through windows, etc. At other times, the film makes use of a subjective camera—that is, a camera whose lens takes the place of one of the characters (usually the doorman), placing us directly in his or her position.

The decision to put us in the intimate space of a character’s face in this way was the kind of choice that a filmmaker could make but that a theatrical director could never do. It is a testament to the possibilities of film and Murnau’s brilliance that The Last Laugh causes us to feel so close to its protagonist despite the simplicity of the story. The Last Laugh is for at least that reason an example of a movie that makes full use of the potential for a film to connect with its audience in purely visual terms. The movie dares to show us suffering in a way that is truthful and raw for most of its running time. For that reason alone, it is very special, but its emotional depth combined with Murnau and Freund’s cinematography make it a work of art.

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