German director F. W. Murnau’s 1924 silent film The Last Laugh wasn’t the first to use a freely mobile camera and expressionistic backdrops, but it was the most influential, one where all the directorial flourishes served to tell the tale, presenting a coherent intensity and gloom. Although it has that lugubriousness that one associates with much silent German cinema, the film’s sheer inventiveness makes it an engrossing experience, drawing the modern viewer into a nearly hypnotic world of high melodrama.
The story is very simple, telling of a proud doorman at a luxury hotel who falls from grace when he loses his job to a younger man. With his elaborate uniform and full white beard, the doorman (Emil Jannings) has a sort of avuncular kindness, shepherding the hotel’s inhabitants from cab to door and back, carrying their heavy luggage and holding an umbrella to shield them during inclement weather. When he goes home after work to his humble digs, he keeps his outfit on and the neighbors all treat him like a man of importance.
The loss of his position at the hotel is less wounding than the loss of his uniform; demoted to lavatory attendant, he’s forced to wear a simple white cloth jacket, a symbol of his new anonymity. Murnau’s subjective camera allows us to see things through the doorman’s delirium of despair. Walking home with the crushing burden of shame, the huge hotel facade leans over him as if it were about to snuff him out; the faces of his neighbors, the same people who were so deferent when he paraded home in his grand uniform, are now presented as distorted mocking gargoyles full of gleeful ill will.
The movie was originally entitled The Last Man and ended with the doorman at his lowest ebb, crouching in the lavatory in the darkness, waiting to die. But the film’s producers had high commercial hopes for this rather expensive film and persuaded Murnau and his screenwriter Carl Mayer to change its title and tack on a happy ending. They did so with tongue-in-cheek, calling it, in the film’s only title card, “an improbable epilogue.” It worked; The Last Laugh was a huge success in Germany, and its popularity led to Murnau’s invitation to Hollywood a few years later. Although he may be an obscure figure to some today, his influence as a director was wide-ranging and long-lasting. His influence could have been even greater; after arriving in America he made only four more films and then, just before signing a new contract with Paramount Pictures, died in a car crash in 1931 at the age of 43.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].