The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)
One of the most playful and endlessly influential of all silent films, The Last Laugh shows the legendary German studio Ufa and equally legendary director F.W. Murnau at their zenith — sparkling ingenuity, endlessly inventive visuals and subversive, ironic storytelling. Virtually free of title cards, it tells the story of an aging hotel doorman and his fall from (rather absurd) grace; we find him doing his best despite a body that’s slowly failing him and unable to face his family with the truth when he loses a job they believe is prestigious, demoted to a restroom attendant. That the two positions are both service industry careers differing only by the presence of the uniform is not lost on Murnau and writer Carl Mayer, hence the viciousness in the film’s treatment of the awe over a mere outfit, undoubtedly a pointed political statement in Germany in the early ’20s.
That neighborhood, incidentally, is quite a sight, a lovingly constructed set that captures just sufficiently the vague desperation of a nighttime captured with equal attention to beauty and squalor in Fritz Lang’s Weimar thriller M a few years hence. Alfred Hitchcock, incidentally, was working at Ufa while The Last Laugh was being made and would remember the shot of the artificial neighborhood undergoing a time-lapse dawn through tricks of lighting in his Rope and Rear Window. And yet there was really almost no one like Murnau — his wild sets and flights into unexpected surrealism mostly suggest movements he’d make in his later pictures in America, Sunrise and City Girl. A crucial difference between Murnau and the avant garde filmmakers of the 1910s and 1920s, whose innovations cast shadows no longer than his own, is that Murnau tied his ideas elegantly and nearly invariably to emotional highs and lows, to a deep understanding of human pride, frailty, aloofness and affection.
As such, even though The Last Laugh boils over with sarcastic commentary on the superficial nature of class, the movie is full of genuine empathy. Emil Jannings’ working man, admired in his neighborhood for his pretty uniform, makes his way into the heart almost as effortlessly as Chaplin’s Tramp. Just as in Sunrise, Murnau tells the simple story with miraculous grace and creativity, toying joyfully with the audience’s conception of a dream state. With its elaborate sets, wild montage tricks, and then-revolutionary (and still dazzling) camera moves, the film seems to exist on a plane just slightly distant enough from reality to render it inexpressibly unnerving and intoxicating.
Arriving at a poetic — if somewhat defeatist — logical conclusion of oppressive bleakness, the film then takes the bold tactic of making its mockery of the division of rich and poor the entire body of its long closing sequence, wherein Jannings unexpectedly comes into riches and indulges in idle tomfoolery. It’s almost unmistakably a fantasy, and a scathing contrast to the reality of how wealth falls upon people; if anything, the preceding title card that all but announces it as a break from the narrative can only be seen as a near-fatal error. Murnau’s instinct to avoid such overexplaining was obviously correct, and the deletion of this awkward paragraph would only make the film more satisfyingly tragic.
This lone caveat can’t derail such an extraordinary and historically vital film. The most breathtaking moments linger in the mind long after the conclusion, and indeed eclipse it altogether. There are those two mirrored shots of a night watchman and his flashlight in the dark. The lengthy take just inside of a revolving door overlooking multiple layers of cars outside and buildings across the street, running almost long enough that you could become distracted from the story wondering how on earth it was achieved, but not quite. Or perhaps most strikingly of all, the dream sequence in which Jannings imagines recovering all of his youthful strength, boasting one of the earliest “handheld” shots in cinema (you can see photos of the nutty portable camera that cinematographer Karl Freund was using on the DVD) and one of the most beautiful, winding drunkenly around a room watching people cheer, another stark, distorted mirror of the reality as Jannings’ eternally defeated character knows it. One could go on. In terms of using visuals to embody its story and human emotions, Murnau’s grand mission, nearly every moment of this film is a revelation.