The Last Laugh may be a required and worthy subject for silent film studies, but it has a cinematic power outside of academia, a power that hasn’t diminished in 85+ years. The intersection of cinematographer Karl Freund with screenwriter Carl Mayer and director F.W. Murnau is a notable and propitious one; Murnau was at the height of his powers while Freund would go on to lens many more films in Germany and especially the United States. It’s debatable which of them is responsible for the film’s more unique attributes, but it’s also readily apparent that their combined talents made the work far better than the material might suggest on paper, no slight to Mayer’s dramatic skills. It’s a simple story, like any told through acting, lighting and set-design, but the reason for its success is its innovative camerawork. The story is channeled by Freund’s camera, which pans and tracks and throttles every moment of every scene.
The opening scene still dazzles. We begin on an open elevator descending toward a hotel lobby; the doors open and through the lobby we go, tracking toward the luxury hotel’s great, rotating door. The lens here appears dewy as elsewhere, a quality both sensuous and dream-like. The rotating door may be the film’s most prominent motif after the porter’s coat, and the first time we see it we are taken through it like one of the hotel’s patrons to spy our hero, the porter (Emil Jannings), risking sogginess to tend to luggage in the torrential rain. Low angles establish his sense of superiority even among the affluent, and the space of the hotel is exaggerated so it appears the center of the porter’s universe. Words can’t express the power of the camera’s movements during this long scene. Depending on the account, it was either a baby-carriage or a wheelchair that dollied the camera. It simply has to be seen.
Coming out of the rain, the porter discards his rain jacket and now we see the source of his exuberance, his porter’s coat, a glittering gem of thread and button, the cynosure of every scene here on out. It resembles something military and attaches to its wearer prestige and rank, and accords a dignity not won by the man, for the porter is an aging cartoon, mustachioed and clownishly rotund. It becomes apparent that he’s too old for the job when he can’t lift a patron’s luggage without great difficulty. He rests on his haunches after this trying moment, the patron wags his finger at the porter’s superior and, just like that, he’s demoted, forced to trade his magic coat for the white blouse of a washroom attendant. A clever trick has the camera appear to track directly through the plate-glass window of the hotel manager’s office as the porter awaits the relinquishment of his position in the adjacent room.
The porter is a man who has put his soul into objects, foremost among them the pristine uniform with gleaming buttons that he worships, divesting himself of any sort of pride or exuberance that isn’t invested in the article. As a result, the loss of his position is not so much an insult to his abilities as a man or one of pecuniary concern, but it means the relinquishment of his most prized possession… into which he has transmitigated his soul. His first thought when stripped of it is not finding a better occupation or coping with its meaning to his life, but simply getting the thing back. His trek home after his demotion is another virtuosic achievement of Murnau’s when the towering hotel actually appears to fall over to crush the defeated porter.
Expressionistic touches such as this tell us something of his thought processes. The pathos of his agony is clear, so it’s not surprising when the porter devises to steal the coat back from the hotel. Wearing it once again, he successfully deceives his family and tenement neighbors into believing he still has his former rank; they won’t be subjected to his ‘nakedness’ without it . But when his wife brings the porter his lunch and sees him in his pitiful garb tending the hotel bathroom, she belts out a Munchian scream into the camera as if she has just glimpsed the man in some frightful erotica.
When everyone in the tenement building discovers the sad truth, the porter becomes the butt of jokes; he still wears the outfit but it is a shell, a mockery, and his hunched gait only confirms it. The attitude of his neighbors toward him fulfills the fears pregnant in his dream a day before, a dream that has superimposed faces swirling about him, cackling derisively at his misfortune. There is another remarkable scene the morning after his daughter’s marital celebration. The porter, still drunk, daydreams of a triumphant return to the hotel, bedecked in splendor, lifting that nagging luggage over his head one-handed like an Adonis and flinging it in the air to the amazement of an affluent crowd. The frame is blurred, the camera tilted, and Freund tracks along with the porter through the hotel doors and among the crowd. It has all the surreality and authenticity of a dream, the camera movement and the lighting again are exceptional, especially considering the long length of the take.
Der letzte Mann was the culmination of a series of so-called “instinct films”, of which Carl Mayer played a key role, a small generation of German silent films in the early ’20s which similarly attempt a more direct visual conveyance of feelings, or psychological drama, and, according to German film historian Siegfried Kracauer, have the same thematic preoccupations: “they are laid in a lower middle-class world which is the meaningless remnant of a disintegrated society.”1 I’m not sure what he means by ‘meaningless’, but aren’t the Germans harsh in their diction?
The entire film, with one exception, is without intertitles; the exception being an apology by the film’s authors for the epilogue to follow. The film ends ostensibly with the porter in utter turmoil, withering away in the hotel washroom, but the studio demanded a happier ending. So Mayer and Murnau obliged with a cynical epilogue that has the porter inheriting a vast fortune from a hotel patron who died in his arms; the porter proceeds to dine at the hotel in opulence, stuffing himself, smoking cigars and mocking his former nemeses. It’s not without its charms, and rather amusing today, but it can easily be cast off to enjoy the film’s more singular pleasures.
1 Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, pg. 96.