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28 June 2011

[Silent Film Marathon] 17# Der Letze Mann (The Last Laugh) (1924)

Directed by: F.W Murnau
Written by: Carl Mayer
Genre: Drama, Art House & International
Runtime: 77 Minutes

As usual I start my reviews with the first thing that comes into my head about the film. The Last Laugh tells a story of an old doorman, who is proud as can be, and even prouder of his uniform with it’s wide shoulders, military lapels and comic opera cuffs. With artistic resonance, director F.W Murnau brings another classic to the screen in this finely crafted piece of entertainment. Using no title cards, except for one that guides us as a narrative, the film’s surprising imagery, smooth camera tracking and movement and a story that comes to terms as simple, it is another classic silent film of the era. Once more an international silent film has come to my eyes, and is making me realise that there is more cinema out there than I know.

The story is simple and tells the story of a man (Emil Jennings) who was proud and had everything, prouder than he should be as a doorman. He is a pleasant man who loves his work. One day, the hotel's insensitive new manager decides that the old man is no longer up to his job. The manager demotes Jannings to the men's wash-room attendant, and the effect is disastrous on the man's prestige and self-esteem. The story is surprisingly basic and mostly follows only the doorman, but it still manages to grasp your attention. We see the doorman, who is now a wash-room attendant, in the wash-room with a look on his face with no self-esteem, utter disgrace and embarrassment. 
The once proud Doorman.
Once again Murnau has played out the cinematography beautifully. Using that vignette style with the camera and its black dark edges, and several of the effects used where innovative and inventive. For a black & White film, and a silent one at that, the imagery and expressionism was off the scale. One scene I’ll never forget is the doormen’s dream sequence which is exactly what I’m talking about. It was fascinatingly strange and shows how weird some dreams just can be. In this dream, the doormen s in his job once again and e walks through those classic revolving doors to find about 6 other doormen trying to lift some luggage. The doormen commanding them to stop by waving his hands then easily lifts the luggage with one hand.  He proudly walks back into the hotel with the luggage high in the air with one arm and soon begins throwing it in the air and catching it. Around him are people clapping. The scene was bizarre and a true oddity. But showed the psychological state the doorman was in.

About 60 minutes into the film, you are left in pretty much no doubt that this story has not got happy ending, but Murnau (either because his producers forced him to or he wanted to) decided to take pity on the character and turn things around. I mentioned the one place in the film where a title card is used and it is here. It is not necessary, and the film would make perfect sense without it. But Murnau seemed compelled to use it, almost as an apology for what follows. We see the pathetic old man wrapped in the cloak of the night watchman who was his friend, and the movie seems over. Then comes the title card, which says, "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."

This happy ending as conjured from thin air. Some critics say it was unnecessary, but either way the story ended fine and was most satisfying. If the film where to ending this tragedy, it would still suite the title, that of which being the society gets the last laugh on him. Instead we have and ending of our doormen, who inherited a fortune from a man who died in his arms in the wash room (whose will said whoevers arms he died in gets the fortune) laughing in his carriage with his friend laughing showing he gets the last laugh.
The doorman as the Wash-room attendant.
Its indeed quite a remarkable film and one critic wrote “His tragedy could only be a German story," wrote the critic Lotte Eisner, whose 1964 book on Murnau reawakened interest in his work. "It could only happen in a country where the uniform (as it was at the time the film was made) was more than God." It does bring to my attention that this is the time during the rise of the Nazis indeed and the doorman’s total identification with his job, hi position, his uniform and his image helps foreshadow how when he puts his uniform on the doorman is no longer an individual, but a somewhat slavishly loyal instrument of a larger organisation. And when he takes the uniform off, he ceases to exist, even in his own eyes.

The doorman is almost constantly in shot with the camera, and once more shows Murnau’s talented ways in the silent era. Der Letze Mann holds as a pretty significant film, but with all this praise why not a 90% rating? Well as much enriched the story is it follows one character and one character only, which is fine but everything is focused on him. The story also ended out of the blue with the writer, which was a little satisfying, but the tragic ending would have left the audience more speechless and surprised. Well overall Der Letze Mann or should I say ‘The Last Laugh’ is among the classic silent films of the era, with great imagery, and a story of one man’s psychological state and tragedy. It has an interesting message and has a very compelling story.
My Rating: 8.5/10


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