JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Last Laugh (Director: F.W. Murnau) - December 28, 2007
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The Last Laugh

Der letze Mann

4.5 4.5
90 min.

Walk a mile in my shoes

The 2002 restoration of this groundbreaking classic and re-recording of the wide-ranging soundtrack are spectacular achievements: no serious collection should be without it.

Shot for over 180 days before the various versions (German, International, U.S.) were released in 1924/5, the tragic tale of the Atlantic Hotel’s proud doorman (Emil Jannings who made a small fortune portraying the hapless, poor everyman) is as relevant today as in the “between-wars” period.

While the emerging technique of “moving camera” (to become dolly and jib) makes this film a marvel of ingenuity, it’s director F.W. Murnau’s magnificent sense of framing that goes far beyond the ability to let the audience “walk with the actors.” Revolving doors and windows set up the many visual metaphors for the sudden changes in life and are viewed by self and those who surround us. Much of the action is captured by the spontaneous cinematography of Karl Freund as he straps on a camera and moves alongside the cast, providing the first “you are there” shots for the big screen (somewhat ahead of The Blair Witch Project and with far more convincing results).

With “Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?” fading off the screen, the film erupts into the heady hustle-and-bustle of a first-class hotel in the midst of a downpour. Jannings seems like an aging Superman as he protects a never-ending stream of new guests as they alight from their vehicles, and head for the upscale doors and into the foyer; Herculean feats with their baggage (marvellously exaggerated in the dream sequence later) quickly establish his seniority in the hospitality industry. Yet his undoing comes from taking a much-deserved, but not allowed break for refreshment, demonstrating the reality of his weary bones but witnessed by the mean-spirited manager (Hans Unterkircher) who sees his chance and reassigns the Falstaff look-alike to become men’s room attendant.

The demotion scene is a gem. Looking through the smudged window of the CAO’s office where the official letter is delivered to the soon to be Uncle-of-the-Bride, the audience has one of many voyeuristic moments, only to be at the now disgraced employee’s side when he’s forced to employ another type of glass to bring the wording of his new “situation” into focus.

When not at work, the bathroom attendant’s neighbours frequently inhabit doorframes and windows of their own. The daily balcony ballet where the frumpy women shake their rugs or, tellingly when the demotion becomes public knowledge, squeal at the humiliating gossip with the delight that only miserable circumstances can inspire when one of their number has fallen. They’ve come by this delectable change of circumstance the day after the former doorman’s social triumph at his alluring niece’s (Maly Delschaft) nuptials; to show her pride and thanks for such a successful party, the bridegroom’s Aunt (Emilie Kurz) opts to surprise the sobering-up, human towel dispenser with his favourite lunch at the hotel (the juxtaposition of his usual bowl of gruel and oysters on the shell in the nearby dining room says more than words ever could). Her unheard scream of family embarrassment caused by Jannings’ nervous peer out of the washroom door—no longer in his impressive gold brocade and button great coat but in a thin white jacket—brings home the complete fall from grace and exposure as a liar. Soon, flapping doors abound and he’s simultaneously abandoned by Auntie and complained about to management by a cigar smoking client whose pleasure in treating the help like crap is readily apparent.

As good as the score is, the decision to use Mussorgsky’s “Il Vecchio Castello” (“The Old Castle” from Pictures at an Exhibition) while Jannings bemoans his fate in the symbolic bowel of the hotel is a stroke of musical/dramatic genius as old age catches up with both. Elsewhere in the score, the use of a flighty piccolo to produce the doorman’s whistle cry is a great idea but losses its punch when out of sync with the action; the extended trumpet solo from an inebriated wedding guest serenading the drunken host from the courtyard produces another cinematic tour de force, but the instrument (an oversize flugelhorn) is at odds with the trumpet pitches that fill our ears.

Having made many points ranging from uniforms commanding more power than their owners to wildfire gossip as a tonic to dreary lives, the film could have ended with a Pagliacci wallop. But writer Carl Mayer was coerced by the star to add an epilogue whose length and saccharine set-up banishes any hope of homage to Gogol and his story (“The Overcoat”) that got things started.

No worries. Freund’s cameras whirr back into service, adding many more visual confections to this cinematic masterpiece, giving him, Murnau and Jannings the last laugh. JWR

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