The Last Laugh: Restored Deluxe Edition.Two-disc DVD set, B&W and Color, 90 minutes, 1924. A Kino International Release, www.kino.com.
Walrus-faced, bear-bodied Emil Jannings commands the screen of F. W. Murnau’s brilliant, though troubling, silent film classic The Last Laugh (1924). Jannings’ unnamed protagonist, a doorman for a luxury hotel, looms above the other characters, wildly and commandingly gesturing at his fellow employees, beaming at hotel patrons, entering his apartment complex like a giant presiding over adoring puny minions. His physical stature adds to the poignancy of his fate: unable one rainy night to lift a luggage trunk perched high up on the top of a car, the doorman is fired from his job for his “age and frailty,” and replaced by a younger man. Murnau, as in every moment of this film, creates an extraordinary visual effect to convey the doorman’s shock and bewilderment. Going through revolving doors at the same time as his replacement, the old, fired doorman stares at him in astonishment and a kind of muted anger, the revolving doors acting as a series of endless, moving mirrors, conveying the themes of the deadly encounter with the doppelgänger, or double, which is one of the chief preoccupations of the Expressionist cinema. Here Murnau anticipates the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage, in which a subject contemplates the illusory perfection of his mirror image and identifies with an imaginary self, a process fraught with pain and aggressivity. The once-looming Jannings, now forced to be a lavatory attendant, sinks almost beneath the frame; weighed down by shame, suggesting a state of abjection as well a return to a cowering, childlike state.
Emil Jannings in all his glory as the doorman
The interests in the psychological that define the Expressionist cinema are on such ample, delirious display here as to seem almost a parody of them. The doorman fetishizes his regal uniform, even breaking into his boss’s office at night so that he can steal it. He wears the uniform back home so no one will suspect he’s lost his job, and sneaks the suit back into the office in the morning. His neighbors also fetishize the suit, as their communal worship attests. When an older woman, his housekeeper, gets respectably dressed so that she can go downtown to bring him some food in a pot, she almost lasciviously inhales the aroma of the food that she’s bringing him, as if overcome by her own devotion and the gustatory treats she offers as sacrifice. (Her gestures are also the properly emotive physical language of silent film, letting us know that what she’s carrying is food.) When, with equal fervor, she ogles the doorman at the hotel—not knowing that this is the protagonist’s replacement—and then discovers that the old man is now a shame-faced lavatory attendant, and, far worse, no longer wears the uniform, the close-up of her face as she screams, utterly aghast, is shockingly intense. She is both the nineteenth-century hysteric driven by inexplicable manias and the witch, spewing imprecations. Without the suit, the doorman is nothing, a snail without a shell; seeing him without the uniform seems to provoke hysteria in others.
When his neighbors, most of whom are older women, discover that the doorman has been fired, their gossiping deepens the suggestion of hysteria as it recalls archetypal images of the witch so resonant in German folklore. Excitement seems to light up these large, disheveled women as they exchange news of the doorman’s plight; they pop off the screen as uncannily energized, hags in heat. In another one of Murnau’s extraordinary visual effects, he communicates not only the transmission of sound but also the virulent power of gossip by giving us an increasingly tight close-up of a woman, mouth cupped in her hands, screaming news of the doorman to another woman in her apartment high above. As we see this woman listening, Murnau compresses the image into a close-up of her ear, conveying in visual terms not only an aural, literal phenomenon, one person transmitting information to another, but also an invisible process, gossip’s invasion of the mind. Few directors have made such abstract concepts so palpably, corporeally visual.
The Doorman exhausted after struggling with a heavy trunk
The double, fetishism, hysteria: these psychoanalytic categories are joined by the most Freudian touch of all, the dreamlike atmosphere of much of the film, heightened by a literal dream sequence in which the doorman fantasizes about being able to lift immense luggage trunks with ease. Once again he is loved by his community, who encircle him and cheer as he repeatedly lifts and tosses about the trunks. What is fascinating here is that when Alfred Hitchcock—who had the opportunity to observe Murnau making this film, an absolutely seminal experience for the great English director—made the 1945 Spellbound, with its Salvador Dali dream sequence, he aimed for absolute sharpness and clarity in the images. What Hitchcock was reacting against was Murnau’s style of filming dream sequences: a hazy, indistinct set of images that look like smudgy charcoal-and-paper drawings. In some ways, Murnau’s dream-style is more authentically dreamlike than Hitchcock’s in Spellbound (not in any way to suggest that its dream sequence isn’t superb, even in the truncated form we have of it) at least in so far as we reconstruct a dream upon waking. Murnau’s dream images have a phantomlike, flickering grayness that suggests the memories of dreams.
While there has been enduring controversy about the legitimacy of Lotte Eisner’s description of this film as Expressionistic, to my mind it seems very much aware of its own affiliations to this artistic movement. The sets evoke Robert Weine’s distorted, theatrical, two-dimensional ones in his Expressionist 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, especially in its phallic but also vaguely twisted, bent buildings. But Murnau, a second-generation Expressionist, is one of the supreme lyrical filmmakers, and his images have an endlessly active, shimmering mobility undreamed of in Wiene’s cinema; Murnau films are Expressionism on wheels, literally, as the early shot that begins in an elevator, goes down several floors, and rides out into the antic bustle of the lobby evinces (it was shot by placing the camera on a bicycle). In a point that seems (from what I have read) rarely made, many of Murnau’s effects evoke Surrealistic photography, especially the numerous shots of disordered, distorted faces that brazenly defy any form of realism. Indeed, the combination of Murnau’s dizzying visuals and the strangely unstable, shifting architectural plan of the film creates an unsettling vertigo that seems as much about the mixture of genres as it does the protagonist’s psyche.
Thomas Elsaesser writes that
The Last Laugh proved a key film of its decade, stylistically as well as thematically. Three tendencies of the German cinema converge to form a new synthesis: Expressionist acting, realism in detail and décor, and the Kammerspiel plot with its self-tormented characters [a kind of intimate psychological theater play in the mold of Ibsen and Strindberg] …. The screenwriter Carl Mayer’s ambition was to tell a story without intertitles or explanatory comment… the film is perhaps most famous for the “entfesselte Kamera,” i.e., the unchained or unfettered camera. Its fluid, mobile, and (in the context of the film’s pathos) eloquent command of the character’s hidden feeling make the space it traverses so effortlessly into a wholly interiorized landscape of the doorman’s psyche, while losing nothing of its biting satire.*
While clearly a bracing work that establishes the collaboration of Murnau, Mayer, and the cinematographer Karl Freund as one of the pinnacles of the UFA studio period, The Last Laugh is as vexing as it is stimulating. It is, for all its dazzling power, nowhere near the achievement of Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise (1927), sadly a box-office failure, though it did win some Oscars). That film has a sweetness and spontaneity in equal measure to its despair and evocative of the subtitle: A Song of Two Humans. I am also not in agreement with Robin Wood that Sunrise evinces the gay Murnau’s internalized homophobia and complementary misogyny. Sunrise is about the redemptive power of love; The Last Laugh is about the redemptive power of capital. While it has been said that the filmmakers were forced to add this section to the film by the producers, the epilogue gives the doorman a happy ending, the “author” of the film having taken pity on him. In a wholly unexpected turn of events, a wealthy man, who died in Janning’s arms in the lavatory, has named the ex-doorman his heir. Despite the purportedly tacked-on quality of the epilogue, it is actually one of the most cunningly conceived sections, poised between warm conviviality and cold satire. The now resplendently wealthy ex-doorman dines in the Atlantic hotel, his friend the night-watchman awkwardly but then avidly joining in his feast, obscenely vast platters of food repeatedly arriving at their table. As the men partake in this gluttonous feast, Murnau suggests—through shots tinged with violence and an excessiveness bordering on disgust—the sheer perversity of capitalism.
The film, then, seems aware of the irony of its happy resolution. But what is more disturbing is what has come before, the depiction of the doorman’s fate as the worst imaginable. Relegated to the very bowels of the earth, the doorman crawls around the lavatory, as squashed and pitiful as an insect. The film appeals to us to view the doorman’s humbled status as the universal condition of modern man, but for whom does this apparently universal image of abjection resonate? We are asked to identify with a fake king whose fall, while depicted as tragic, is almost comedically overblown. The immense, enduring charm of the film certainly doesn’t lie in its violation of Aristotelian dramatic principles (that only a great man’s fall is tragic). Rather, it must lie in the film’s deeply sustained investment in its own masochism, in the spectacle of the main character’s decimated masculinity. We’re invited almost to revel in this increasingly baroque orgy of pain and humiliation. The chief drama of the film is the battle between Murnau’s contagious love of beauty and the smug bathos of the narrative.
The Doorman bereft, after demotion to bathroom attendant, left to eat cold soup in the lavatory
The 2008 double-disc Kino DVD set of the film certainly does it justice. It includes a brand-new transfer of the restored German version of the film, as well as the “Unrestored Export Version” on the second disc. The set also boasts a new recording of the original score by Giuseppe Becce that now accompanies the Restored version, a documentary on the making of the film, and an image gallery.
David Greven is Associate Professor of English at Connecticut College and is the author of the forthcoming book, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press, 2009).