Saturday, 11 February 2012

Revolving doors... The Last Laugh (1924)

I’ve had this one for some time now but I’ve never felt compelled to watch it suspecting that it was perhaps too sentimental and possibly too “worthy”. Maybe it was the kind of film maudlin youth might find attractive because of the casual miseries inflicted on the main character and maybe a narrow band storyline about the (middle) age of irrelevance and the death of pride was too close to the bone for a man of a certain age on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s also one of those works that’s so raved about that it's hard to respond objectively and simply take at face value... as with many albums by van Morrison or Dylan (take your pick).

But, what can I say? I was wrong. Turns out that The Last Laugh is as good as “they” say and I’m a fool for letting its good reputation put me off (where’s my copy of Blonde on Blonde got to?).

I shouldn’t be surprised that the director of Nosferatu and Sunrise can produce such a compelling and visually-inventive story. FW Murnau exerts a fascinating amount of visual control over this film. It looks like almost all of the film was made in studio with massive sets replicating the hotel where the chief protagonist works, the run-down tenements of his home and the streets in between.

The tenement scenes reminded me of Rear Window as Murnau (and his expert cinematographer, Karl Freund) zoom around from balcony to window ledge, choreographing the focus on different character’s reactions. It’s technically brilliant and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. Murnau’s camera lurks in the shadows then suddenly zooms towards or past its targets, as quick as imagination and giving the action a curious dreamlike quality.

But then the main character is living in constant unreality. He works as a doorman in a swish uptown hotel – The Atlantic – were he helps the prestigious guests to enter into its opulence. The hotel is its own fantasy in which appearance is all and status is vital: it has to be a place worthy of the patronage of the guests and this sense of splendour rubs off on those who work there.

To be a visual representation of the hotel “brand” is an honour and source of pride for those fortunate to work front of house. The older and less attractive are kept behind the scenes, cleaning and otherwise maintaining the “front”.

Our doorman is however on the cusp with his age starting to tell and his strength on the wane. The calculating manager spots this and relegates him to a below stairs role in the washroom. He is devastated and begins to shrink in front of our eyes, an amazingly impressive, protean display of physical acting from Emil Jannings.

Unable to face the humiliation of this demotion, the doorman steals his uniform and puts it on when he returns to his tenement for his niece’s wedding party (Maly Delschaft on glowing form). He carries off the deception for the night and a drunken good time is had by all. He has the most vivid inebriated dream in which his strength and position are more than restored with some superb imagery from Murnau.

The next day it’s back to his new reality and his humbling is compounded by the careless humiliation of the guests and, when he is discovered, from his neighbours and even his own family. He creeps home a mere shadow – you can imagine how Murnau depicts this – only to be laughed at and scorned. How can people be this cruel? But we are and the schadenfreude is open and relentless.

The doorman returns his coat to the hotel and is discovered by a friendly nightwatchman who is perhaps the first person in the film to show him any real kindness. We watch appalled and have been waiting for such a moment. But, has it come too late?

As the nightwatchman helps him to his chair in the washroom his torch illuminates a broken heart and a man at the end of his tether.

Murnau can’t have pulled us all along for this to end in loneliness and death can he? You will have to watch this film to find out what the English title actually means; is this the last laugh or does the man have the last laugh?

This film is on a par with the other Murnau’s I’ve watched and is superbly directed – so cohesively shadowed and with that sublime camera movement to surprise and highlight the emotion.

Jannings gives one of the best performances I’ve seen. So obviously a powerful actor in terms of range and stature, he is able to expand and reduce his size in proportion to the character’s fortunes. He his supported by a superbly expressive moustache and expert make up. The film, with so many close ups and, famously no dialogue intertitles, relies massively on his abilities.

A wonderful film and deservedly ranked as one of the classics of the 20’s, The Last Laugh is a testament to the unchanging truths of capitalism, mortality and, in the end, love. I think I’ve only really scratched the surface in one viewing and look forward to watching it again… what wouldn’t we give for a Murnau commentary!

It's available from Amazon at laughably low prices and all good retailers.


  1. Very nice review. This may be my favorite movie from the 20s. I love the dream sequence and the way Murnau's camera seems to turn the hotel from a place of beauty to a place literally and figuratively attacking our hero. Perfect.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! Murnau never lets you down. So balanced and innovative. The Doorman seems completely alone once things's harsh but true to life.