Who Has The Last Laugh (1924)?

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To view The Last Laugh click here.

Nowadays when I talk with my friends about F.W. Murnau (1888 – 1931) they are usually familiar with Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1927). Between those two classics is another masterpiece released in 1924 that is usually overlooked, and one that Georges Sadoul, in his Dictionary of Film Makers claims “was hailed in the USA at the time as the best film in the world.” The German title puts the emphasis on the protagonist (Der Letzte Mann aka: The Last Man), whereas the English title emphasizes a rather shocking ending that highlights a forced Hollywood narrative, but does so with satirical aplomb that is hard to match to this day. You’ll see it all in: The Last Laugh, the story of a hotel doorman (played by Emil Jannings) who is demoted to a lavatory attendant.

Does the uniform make the man, or does the man make the uniform? The Last Laugh leans heavily toward the former, and was probably influenced in no small measure by a short story by Nicolai Gogol published in 1842 called “The Overcoat” (or sometimes translated simply as “The Cloak”). In The Last Laugh the doorman to a luxury hotel in Berlin clearly identifies so strongly with his posh uniform that once he’s stripped clear of it due to the perception that he’s too old for the job, he suffers one humiliation after another and contemplates suicide. Sadou observes that the movie is “a powerful study of the importance Germans attach to uniforms.”

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A bit of context:

Between the wars, there was an unprecedented boom in movies that were coming out of Germany, with an impressive average output of some 250 titles a year. Acclaimed directors of this period included F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, as well as international stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks. There were three stages to the boom. There was German Expressionism (i.e.: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, 1920). There was the Kammerspielfilm, these being movies with few if any intertitles that focused on psychological states (such as is the case with The Last Laugh). There was also die neue Sachlichkeit, aka the “New Objectivity”: these were grim and fatalistic visions of the street level realities faced by the working class (i.e.: The Joyless Street, Pabst, 1925).

I first came across The Last Laugh in Bruce Kawin’s film history class. An excerpt from his book, A Short History of the Movies, helps exemplify how interconnected The Last Laugh was to the German Golden Age of Cinema:

Murnau directed both The Last Laugh and the Expressionist Nosferatu (1922). Producer Erich Pommer closely managed films as diverse as Caligari, The Last Laugh, Variety, Metropolis (1926, released 1927), and The Blue Angel (1930) – and later, in the United States, even Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance. Carl Mayer co-wrote Caligari and was the sole author of a great number of the most important films of the period, including Sylvester and The Last Laugh; he also conceived the genre of the “street film” and dominated both it and the Kammerspielfilm, writing rhythmically charged scripts that suppressed intertitles and included precise lighting and camera directions. And in the hands of the great cinematographers Karl Freund (The Last Laugh, Variety) and Fritz Arno Wagner (Nosferatu and M, 1931), the moving camera, the unconventional angle, the subjective image, and the expressive low-key lighting showed the world what the camera could really do.

The rich cinematic offering described above tapped into two popular German traditions; those of German Romanticism, whose subjects revolved around love and death, fantasy and horror, and then what Kawin referred to as “the new German intellectual currents of Freud and Weber,” which ushered in all kinds of complex psychological and urban concepts. The Last Laugh is a perfect example of a film that fuses all these elements together to deliver the goods. Here I give Kawin the last line (not laugh) when he says that The Last Laugh provides “a far more insightful reading of the class structure than anything in Metropolis.”

Pablo Kjolseth

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1 Response Who Has The Last Laugh (1924)?
Posted By swac44 : August 20, 2017 11:36 am

Thanks at French CBC-TV, my early intro to Murnau was this film and Faust, paving the way for an appreciation of German silents that began with the Moroder disco recut of Metropolis. But even it wasn’t hard to miss out on Murnau’s more humanistic approach. It’s a shame his early death robbed us of what would surely have been major masterpieces of the early sound era and beyond.

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