The Last Laugh (1924)

directed by F.W. Murnau

Plot Summary
An aging doorman at a Berlin hotel takes great pride in his position and its complimentary uniform that affords him respect at the tenement where he lives with his daughter. He loses his job to a younger, stronger man and is given a less respectable position in the washroom. He manages to steal his old uniform and wears it home to avoid the derision of his neighbors. At his daughter's wedding party, he gets drunk and has strange visions. The next day, one of the women from his tenement discovers his lowered status, and it spreads throughout the building. He is harshly ridiculed when he comes home that evening and returns to the hotel to escape humiliation. The doorman gives back his uniform to the night watchman on duty and goes to stay in the washroom. The watchman puts a coat over the old porter as he sits alone in the darkened lavatory. The film's only title card pops up saying that the story should really end, but the author has taken pity on the doorman and given him an "improbable epilogue". A newspaper article relays that he has inherited a huge amount of money. The doorman is then shown at his old hotel eating an extravagant meal with the night watchman. He helps out the new washroom attendant and rides off in a fancy carriage, respected and content.

Commentary


An exceptional work that combines technical virtuosity with important thematic concerns, The Last Laugh is a highly influential film that holds up well. It is one of several great films in the brilliant but tragically short career of director F.W. Murnau. Besides Murnau, some of the most talented people in cinema at this time worked on the film including cinematographer Karl Freund, screenwriter Carl Mayer (who also co-wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and actor Emil Jannings who plays the main character. With incredible camerawork the film successfully meshes subjective elements of German Expressionism with the more realistic and straightforward narrative of the Kammerspiel genre, which deals with problems of contemporary lower-middle-class life. Despite an ending that comes from nowhere to abruptly change the tone, the film keeps a tightly controlled focus on its protagonist’s downfall and displays a fatalistic pessimism. Ironically, by restricting its scope to one man’s plight, it achieves a universal, timeless quality found in great works of tragedy.

The innovative camerawork remains one of the most striking aspects and is crucial to the film’s success. The opening shot has the camera riding down the hotel elevator, exploring the lobby by tracking through toward the revolving door, and then looking through this door to the porter working outside in the rain. This movement clearly establishes the spatial relationships in the hotel, introduces the main character, and even possibly foreshadows his fall from grace with the elevator and rain both coming down. Later, the doorman is shown reading his letter of demotion through a hotel office window while the manager is seen through another window on the left of the screen. This breaking up of the frame conveys the relative indifference of the manager and the separation between the two men. The camera then tracks forward toward the doorman and seemingly through the window into the office. This sequence is highly reminiscent of a celebrated moment in the later Citizen Kane when the camera appears to move through a skylight and into the El Rancho nightclub. Adding to the film’s realism is the establishment of off-screen space, most memorably during the porter’s successful reclaiming of his uniform. The camera slowly dollies in on the sleeping bellhops, and the doorman runs across the frame to clearly show that events are taking place outside of the camera’s gaze.

The doorman’s drunken episode allows the camera and the film to be at their most obviously subjective. The camera spins around the room to suggest his intoxication before entering two contrasting dreams that convey different ways of psychologically dealing with his lost job. The more realistic one shows the porter as the object of ridicule in his tenement and includes a montage of sneering and laughing faces in close-up. The doorman’s other dream is a quite humorous fantasy of him lifting a huge piece of luggage with one hand and tossing it gracefully up in the air in front of an admiring crowd. Besides being technically fascinating, these sequences illustrate the workings of the protagonist’s mind in response to his trauma: fearing the worst and escaping through fantasy. Additionally, the long duration of many of the shots deserves mention. These long takes are necessary in many instances because the mobile camera is constantly reframing and displaying new visual information. They also tend to give a sense of great importance to the porter’s predicament and add pathos to shots like his taking final refuge in the lonely washroom before the "improbable epilogue".

There is also some symbolism to be found in the framing of scenes and in various objects within the narrative. An apparent expressionistic example would be the doorman’s vision of the hotel toppling over on top of him. The place that had given him pride and a sense of purpose now threatens to ruin him. Similarly, the uniform that he had once proudly worn and in which had seemed a strong, imposing figure is vital to his self-definition and sense of worth. Without it he is merely an anonymous older man in the city, and Jannings shows this through his now hunched-over posture and slow, resigned walk. The various shots of (often clear) doors and windows form a motif in the visual style. They remind one of the protagonist’s former position but also more abstractly suggest other ideas: a ‘window’ into this man’s existence we are getting to look through or perhaps a ‘passing through’ in life to another conception of oneself or state of being. After the porter receives the gear for his new washroom job, he walks through a set of doors into a completely dark area as if he is slipping into a void of nothingness. The most emphasized of these elements, however, is the revolving door in which the porter is spinning when he sees his replacement passing. This sequence illustrates the cyclical transition where old is replaced by new, and the door becomes a symbol for the inevitable changes in life that time brings.

The final section of the film poses problems for interpretation and for tonal congruity. Because there are no other intertitles in the film, when one comes up to explain this epilogue, it causes what feels like a sharp division in the action. This split, along with the title mentioning "Here the story should really end", causes one to almost disregard the end of the picture. It’s not that there is a desire to see the doorman left in his "forlorn" state, but the rest of the film so clashes with what came before that a little of its power is diminished. It is somewhat satisfying to see the former porter help out the new washroom attendant and give the poor guy on the street a ride while pushing away the new doorman. One almost forgets that the protagonist’s excessive pride in his job had caused him a great deal of emotional anguish. Some critics have seen the ending as a deliberate parody of a ‘happy ending’ or as a metaphor for the money due to the struggling UFA studio from the talent-sharing deal with American studios. Or perhaps Mayer was guarding against someone else changing the ending as they did with Caligari.

Whatever the case may be, The Last Laugh emerges as an extremely important film in cinematic history, particularly for its integration of various modes of objective and subjective representation and fluid camerawork. The almost complete lack of title cards allows it to succeed aesthetically and thematically in strictly visual terms and marks it as a work of pure cinema.

7 of 10


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© 1999

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