In the opening shot of F.W. Murnau's silent classic The Last Laugh the film camera excitingly swoops into a fancy and luxurious hotel as you witness a elderly doorman who feels proud of his respected position. The man expresses much more pride in the uniform he wears which is full of several gold buttons and braids, including silver opera cuffs and brass military labels. Every day of the week this doorman eagerly greets the rich and famous as they arrive and depart through the always busy revolving door. Unfortunately old age will ultimately demote this doorman's prestigious position and stature to the humiliating position of a simple washroom attendant, which will not only embarrass the elderly man's pride in front of family and friends, but it will crush the man's spirit and integrity that he earlier had embodied. Most silent films can label themselves silent but The Last Laugh is one film that is most truly silent, because it doesn't include any inter-titles or words of dialogue whatsoever. Most of the great silent directors were proud in the artistic integrity of expressing a story without sound and words, but Murnau was the first director ever who decided to not even use a single printed word (Well, besides his letter of demotion, there is one sequence near the end). Murnau knew that all he needed to express in the story he wanted was through the shots, movements, shadows and angles, with facial expressions told through the simple lens of the camera.
In the opening shot of the film the camera excitingly swoops out of the doors of an elevator and into the fancy and luxurious hotel lobby. The camera then sours out the revolving front doors as you witness a elderly door man who feels proud of his respected position at the Atlantic Hotel (Emil Jannings). It is pouring rain outside and so the doorman does his best in trying keep his elegant customers dry by escorting them through the rain by holding an umbrella. The doorman seems full of himself as he proudly whistles for cabs, salutes arriving customers and carries and moves heavy amounts of luggage in and out of the hotel. The physical work and strain seems to take a toll as he takes a moment's rest in the lobby as the snooty assistant manager unhappily notices the doorman resting and decides to write up a note.
Much of the doorman's happiness in life depends on the respect paid to his uniform by his nosy and gossipy neighbors around the courtyard of his apartment building, as they greet him everyday when leaving to work and greet him when returning home for the evening. When returning home every evening the doorman has to make a midway rest while climbing the large staircase that leads to his apartment building.
The sun rises as a new work day arrives as he doorman's wife seems to be baking a wedding cake for their daughter who is getting married while the doorman gets ready for work. She lets the doorman have a taste of the cake as the doorman looks at his daughter's wedding dress. The doorman leaves as all the neighbors greet him good morning as they are out in the hallway gossiping and beating out their dusty carpeting. When on the street the doorman comforts one of the children who seems to be crying by giving her a piece of candy.
While the doorman enters work his world suddenly comes spinning around him as he sees another doorman revolving through the hotel door, doing his job. The doorman is told by a co-worker to come inside because the supervisor has to speak with him. The audience is at first kept outside the glass-plate doors of the supervisor's office, but soon enough the camera seemingly moves through the glass-plate doors as the doorman has been given a letter that reads: In consideration of your many years of service with us, we have arranged a different position for you, now that one of our oldest employees is being sent to a retirement home. Beginning today, you will take over his duties." Then in extremely close-up the bolds words on the letter read: "The reason for these measures is your age and frailty."
The ex-doorman tries to prove his supervisor's worth by trying to pick up a steamer trunk full of clothes but he immediately drops it and collapses. His supervisor has the doorman get stripped of his prestigious uniform, as a now belittled old man turns to look at his doorman uniform which is unfortunately put away in the employee locker. The old man is giving a high stack of towels and is ordered to stock the shelves of the hotel washroom.
Ashamed to be seen by his family and neighbors without his uniform, the old man decides to steal it from the locker room during the night, by sneaking by the front desk and hotel watchman. He slips on the uniform before actually arriving home, (he seems to also be paranoid as he believes that the walls of the Atlantic Hotel are towering over to crush him).
The old man arrives home where his wife and neighbors are all happily celebrating his daughter's wedding reception, as friends and neighbors drink to the respected and adored old man. That evening the old man entertains his guests by drinking a little too much as he does his best of concealing his demotion from his friends and family. There is an extraordinary shot that presents the old man's tipsy mental state as the camera starts to wobble and spin as its point of view changes in place of the old man. The story then slips into a dream sequence in which the old man is shown proud and important at his job. When six hotel custodians seem to struggle lifting a strongly heavy steamer trunk, the old man asks the gentlemen to stand back as the old man proves he has the strength of ten men, picking up the steamer trunk with one arm and lifting it over his head. The distorted dream sequence seems to be shot in a way where the shot is superimposed with another shot of the rotating door, as the old man throws the steamer trunk high into the air and catches it with one hand while a crowd of people watch him in awe.
The next morning the old man wakes up from a heavy night of drinking as his eye sight seems to still be blurry and out of focus. The old man's wife helps him slip on his uniform but when the old man realizes that a button is missing, she happily sews it back on while he shortly drifts off to sleep. After a night of hard partying the old man is snapped back into sobriety when he leaves his apartment complete in uniform, only to come to the realization that he was demoted the day earlier when suddenly arriving to work to see another doorman at the front door of the hotel. Realizing that he had forgot the old man quickly removes his doorman uniform, only to again retrieve it later after work.
While working now as a simple washroom attendant the old man mops bathroom floors, shines shoes and cleans toilets while receiving petty tips when handing out soap and towels to the customers. During the day his wife heads to the market to purchase some dinner to surprise her husband. When arriving at the hotel she is shocked to see another doorman in her husband's place and when she finds her husband now working as a washroom attendant she is horrified and rushes home.
Depressed that his wife has discovered the truth, the old man's mind isn't on the job as his wife arrives home and gossips to her neighbor while another eavesdrops and spreads the news to the rest of the neighborhood. The old man picks up his uniform and heads home while the gossipy neighbors all patiently wait for his return, knowing the old man has lied about his prestigious job. When arriving in the courtyard of his apartment all the neighbors open their windows to taunt the old man mercilessly, as there is a nightmarish montage of several different mouths laughing and mocking him.
Knowing his lie has humiliated and blemished his reputation and caused his wife to reject him out of shame, the old man returns to the hotel during the night and pathetically gives up his doorman uniform to a nightly watchman. The old man then makes his way into the washroom and collapses on the floor in defeat. The nightly watchman comforts the old man by covering him with his coat as the old man falls asleep grieving.
"Here, in the place of his disgrace, the old man wastes away miserably for the rest of his life. And the story would end here. However...the author has decided to look after this person long after he has been abandoned by all the others, by giving him an epilogue, wherein things turn out...unfortunately...as they seldom do in real life."
A man reads in the newspaper (one of the only times in the film where there is inter-titles) a story that reads: A multimillionaire named U.G. Monen died in the washroom of the Atlantic Hotel as he was washing his hands. Now a sensational will has been found among his papers which names as sole heir of his immeasurable fortune the person in whose arms he dies. Accordingly, it seems that the biblical promise that the last shall be first is already being fulfilled on earth. And the lucky person is..."
The next shot pulls back through a luxurious restaurant as it reveals the ex-doorman as he happily dines ordering the best champagne and caviar, as he is the lucky individual that inherited a fortune from his patron. The night watchman who earlier showed him kindness arrives at the restaurant with several gifts as the old man invites him at his table, and the old man celebrates his new-found wealth in glory, while his old enemies angrily look onward. When using the washroom the old man happily gives the washroom attendant several gold coins and a cigar. When leaving the restaurant the old man awakens his buggy driver with a whistle as the old man proudly tips all the waiters that have graciously served him and the old man and the night watchman ride away, but not before letting a homeless man ride along with them.
Much of the style that The Last Laugh embodied was of Kammerspielfilm which was a slight shift from German Expressionism. Kammerspielfilm came upon from early theatre chamber dramas, with its lack of inter-titles, shift from fantasy and realist settings, and its intimate stories about everyday life. It also brought upon narration, use of camera movement and subjectivity which shifted between objective and subjective points of view.
German Expressionism was another creative style and movement that came out of Germany after their defeat in World War I. UFA studios which was Germany's principal film studio at that time, decided for the film industry to go private which largely confined Germany and isolated the country from the rest of the world. In 1916, the government had banned any foreign films in the nation, and so the demand from theaters to generate films led to the rise of film production from 24 films released in 1914 to a high 130 films in 1918.
German Expressionism and its aesthetics was first derived from German Romanticism and of architecture, painting, and of the stage, most famously from German set designers Herman Warm, Walter Rorhig, and Walter Reimann. Much of German Expressionism's style and design expressed interior realities via exterior realities and emotionalism rather than objectivity or realism. Many films of German Expressionism used bizarre set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The world that characters inhabit in a German Expressionism film are full of exaggerated landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, angles, shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter, jagged and many of the props seem to be geometrically off-balance. This unusual visual look is intentional off course to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism. It's unsettling sets of instability gives the feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The actor's in German Expressionism films usually wear heavy make-up, their acting is greatly exaggerated and their movements are jerky and unnatural to blend in with the stylistic and abstract environment. German Expressionistic's odd and distorted style are as unrealistic as the dilution of its main character who's narrative is a good contrast to its style as it revolves around such themes as psychology, fantasy, madness, betrayal and murder as its creators used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than realism or what was on the surface. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include several of Fritz Lang's silent films most importantly Metropolis and M. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel are also considered landmarks of German Expressionism, with some critics looking at the aesthetics of German Expressionism as the early beginnings of American film-noir.
D.W. Griffith is looked at as one of the most influential silent directors of all time but I personally believe F. W. Murnau to be the greatest of all silent directors. Murnau lived from 1888 to 1931 and had made 22 films. He is known for four masterpieces which don't include The Last Laugh. Murnau's technical mastery especially in the way of effects make all of his films exciting to see. Murnau's most popular film was his 1922 horror classic Nosferatu which is also looked at by critics and horror fans as one of the greatest horror films of all time. His unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with actor Max Schreck's frightening rodent like portrayal of Dracula is looked at by many as the defining film version of Dracula. Murnau then created one of the most beautiful silent fantasy films of all time titled Faust in 1926 which told the classic story of a demon named Mephisto who wagers with an angel that he can corrupt a mortal man's soul. The beautiful special effects and its large visual scope is so grand that I would compare it to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The worldwide success of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust won Murnau a Hollywood contract with Fox, and he moved to America in 1926. Sunrise was one of his first films he made in the United States and many claim to be his greatest achievement and one of the greatest silent films of all time. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar playing a woman whose husband is considering murdering her so he can be with another woman. His last film was Tabu in 1931 which was a romance between a young fisherman and a holy maid on the island of Bora Bora Lagoon. Unfortunately Murnau was killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway just before its premiere, and his promising career was cut short at 43. If he had lived, he would have probably made several more masterpieces especially with the creation of sound just being introduced; but sadly we will never know what more he could have accomplished and what could have been.
Director F. W. Murnau was at the height of his film career in Germany and had high ambitions for his first film with UFA. He stated that "All our efforts must be directed towards abstracting everything that isn't the true domain of the cinema. Everything that is trivial and acquired from other sources, all the tricks, devices and cliches inherited from the stage and from books." Murnau called screenwriter Carl Mayer which was someone who worked in 'the true domain of the cinema' and agreed to make The Last Laugh after Mayer and film director Lupu Pick fought and Pick left the film. The film famously uses no inter-titles, which had previously been done by Mayer and Pick on Scherben and Sylvester several years earlier, as well as by director Arthur Robinson in the film Schatten in 1923.
The film was shot entirely at the UFA Studios as Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund used elaborate camera movements for the film, a technique which was later called 'the unchained camera.' In the iconic elevator lobby sequence in the opening of the film, Murnau strapped a camera to Freund's chest as he rode a bicycle into an elevator and onto the street below. In another scene a camera was sent down a wire from a window to the street below and later had it reversed in editing, or the shot that seemingly moves through the plate-glass window of a hotel manager's office, which influenced the famous nightclub shot in Orson Welles Citizen Kane. The spinning superimposed sequence in which the old man gets highly intoxicated and the camera looks to be floating freely in the air, Freund achieved by mounting the camera and himself on a swing, giving the impression that the camera was free from gravity. Murnau described the films cinematography as being "on account of the way...objects were placed or photographed, their image is a visual drama. In their relationship with other objects or with the characters, they are units in the symphony of the film." Freund filmed many other German silent films, notably Fritz Lang's futurist science fiction epic Metropolis and his first American film All Quiet on the Western Front.
The Last Laugh was a major critical and financial success and allowed Murnau to make two big budget films shortly afterwards. Critics praised the films style and artistic camera movements. Film critic Paul Rotha said that it "definitely established the film as an independent medium of expression...Everything that had to be said...was said entirely through the camera...The Last Laugh was cine-fiction in its purest form; exemplary of the rhythmic composition proper to the film." Years later C. A. Lejeune called it "probably the least sensational and certainly the most important of Murnau's films. It gave the camera a new dominion, a new freedom...It influenced the future of motion picture photography...all over the world, and without suggesting any revolution in method, without storming critical opinion as Caligari had done, it turned technical attention towards experiment, and stimulated...a new kind of camera- thinking with a definite narrative end. Lotte Eisner praised its "opalescent surfaces streaming with reflections, rain, or light: car windows, the glazed leaves of the revolving door reflecting the silhouette of the doorman dressed in a gleaming black waterproof, the dark moss of houses with lighted windows, wet pavements and shimmering puddles...His camera captures the filtered half-light falling from the street lamps...it seizes railings through basement windows." Siegfried Kracauer pointed out that "all the tenants, in particular the female ones...revere the uniform as a symbol of supreme authority and are happy to be allowed to revere it." It was said that Murnau noted that the story of The Last Laugh was an absurd concept on the grounds that "everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman."
There are several key moments in The Last Laugh that refer back to the style of German Expressionism, many of them involve the bold and exaggerated visual elements as the doorman drifts from dreams and nightmares, and different mental states throughout the story. The Last Laugh is less extravagant and sensational than Murnau's other works and is a more traditional character film which follows the story through the eyes of the doorman. The German Expressionistic scale of the hotel and the city is almost exaggerated and emphasized, to project how important it is to the doorman's identity. Many of the early scenes before the doorman is demoted seem to be purposely distorted as they are shot from a lower angle so that the doorman's position and the hotel he is employed at seem to tower over others projecting the doorman as a powerful and important figure that is bigger than life. All the sequences that involve his neighbors and of his apartment courtyard seem to be very stylized as these scenery shots are obviously not real and are enormous hand-painted sets.
The improbable and preposterous ending that Murnau gave its audiences for The Last Laugh I believe slightly weakens an overall perfect picture, as this ending seemed to have been conjured up out of thin air. The doorman accidentally inheriting a fortune, and treating all his friends while gloating in the glory of his new-found wealth is pretty tacky and doesn't fit with the rest of the picture. It was this ending that inspired the English language title which means 'the last man' which I believe means the original doorman who was replaced. The unfortunate decision to create a contrived happy ending to what was a powerful and tragic story was something I wouldn't expect from a great director like Murnau. It was said that he wasn't happy with the tacked on ending as well and had the grace to apologize in advance for it. Ironically the happy ending which I believe is the only flaw in this film is what made the film grow in stature throughout the decades.
What I find fascinating is the critic Lotte Eisner's take on Murnau's The Last Laugh as he described the film saying: "is preeminently 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." Sighting the film as only a German story in which uniform is king makes me think about the films context and the message it was suggesting to the German people in the year 1924. It begs the question on why it felt so important for a man to be identified by his uniform, and to be identified by his position, as these themes frighteningly foreshadow the rise of the Nazi Party, in which men when putting on their uniform were no longer a individual who could make individual moral decisions and judgments, as their moral compass were predetermined for them, while they mindlessly carried out orders from a much larger and evil organization. Once the uniform is taking away, the identity, the image and the purpose of the human being ceases to exist. The foreshadowing of the Nazi Party as a particular metaphor throughout The Last Laugh is something that can be seen as irony when exploring the life of German silent actor Emil Jannings, who when making the film was at the top of his form. The doorman's fall from grace can be a highly ironic parallel to Jannings movie career as an actor. Jannings arrived in America along with Murnau and was the very first actor to win the best actor Academy Award for Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command. When sound came into the movie business Jannings found himself unemployable because his thick German accent was difficult to understand. Returning to Germany, he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the masterpiece The Blue Angel. Unfortunately Jannings embraced the rise of the Nazis and supported them by starring in several Nazi propaganda films. His support of the Nazi Party named him 'Artist of the State in 1941 by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and was appointed head of a major German production company. When the troops of the Allied Powers entered Germany in 1945, it was said that Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood. Unfortunately for Jannings that didn't seem to help his career as he was ultimately subject to denazification and fell into disgrace after the war. Can't get more ironic than that.