The cream of German Expressionist filmmaking of the 1920s is increasingly accessible to modern audiences. The curated restoration of F.W. Murnau’s expressionist masterpiece is a beauty — we finally can experience the film in its full original form.
The Last Laugh
Kino Lorber Kino Classics
1924 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 90 min. / Der letze mann / Street Date November 14, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95 Starring: Emil Jannings, Georg John.
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Film Editor: Elfi Böttrich
Production Design: Edgar G. Ulmer
Original Music: Giuseppe Becce
Written by Carl Mayer
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by F. W. Murnau
Back in the early 1970s film school professors had limited resources. They lectured, assigned readings from a short list of authoritative film scholars and screened 16mm prints of renowned world classics. The only problem is that it was often difficult to correlate the classics described in the texts with the ragged film prints available. A postwar picture like The Bicycle Thief might be in good shape, but we students had no idea that the Metropolis we were shown had been assembled from whatever film scraps were available in Europe after WW2. The real movie was ‘lost,’ and we didn’t even know it. Kirsanoff’s amazing Ménilmontant existed only as an incoherent fragment, while Dreyer’s lauded The Passion of Joan of Arc was a jumble of jump cuts that barely resembled its description in the texts. Because the original Joan of Arc was thought lost in the war, Dreyer had re-cut the version we saw from whatever alternate takes he could find.
Exemplary film restorations of the last few decades have resurrected wonderful, original versions of all of these titles. And miracle discoveries helped. A perfect original of The Passion of Joan of Arc was discovered in a Norwegian mental hospital.
The same basic thing happened with F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, a 1924 German film considered the prime example of Silent German Expressionism. In film school we read about Murnau’s daring photographic techniques and direction that eliminated the need for text inter-titles. But the film we saw had ragged continuity and many titles, making us doubt whether the scholar-author knew what he was talking about. We had to accept the film’s importance on faith. In film criticism, once one stops forming opinions independently, you might as well put your brain up on a shelf.
Kino’s Blu-ray is a restored German version that aligns with the descriptions given in the classic literature onfilm. We can finally see the cinematic qualities the experts were talking about.
The Last Laugh is the story of a small man with a universal problem. He’s a hotel doorman beyond retirement age. In his uniform greatcoat he looks magnificent greeting guests, opening doors and summoning bellboys. Famed actor Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) plays the doorman as a fellow defined by his role, proud of his impressive uniform. He cultivates a magnificent beard.
But the hotel manager sees the doorman’s failings. He looks fine but tires easily, and sneaks back to the lobby to rest and take a drink while guests continue to arrive and depart. He often needs to haul large trunks down from the tops of taxis, and can no longer handle the exertion.
The storyline barely needs describing. The doorman’s curt dismissal utterly destroys him. Without his greatcoat, robbed of his identity, he’s just a stooped little man of no importance whatsoever. The manager gives him a demeaning job as a washroom attendant. Returning to his tiny apartment is humiliating. He can’t tell his niece of his misfortune, as she’s just about to marry. Fixated on the uniform, the ex-doorman sneaks back into the hotel, to steal back his beloved uniform.
Murnau’s camera defies all the expectations of normal silent filmmaking in 1924. It descends to the hotel lobby in a fast elevator and trucks madly through crowds of people, all the way to the street. For some shots the camera is tied to the operator’s chest. Murnau plans every shot to contrast the doorman’s proud position with his later, diminished status. Jannings’ acting is stylized as well, but nothing about his performance is overwrought. He looks straight and strong on the job, as if the coat were holding him up. Without it he hunches over and moves slowly, self-consciously. He’s too ashamed to function normally.
Film scholars once taught that silent German films with dark themes ‘predicted’ Hitler, the Nazi era, etc.. My film school lecturers, some of whom were WW2 veterans, frequently associated the old doorman’s uniform with the notion that Germans are obsessed by ‘uniformity,’ and that order and discipline of this kind are a national trait somehow responsible for Naziism. I disagree — it’s just advanced stereotyping. I think the observation was a way for non-Germans to deny that their own countries are equally prone to Fascist politics.
The set designs credited to Edgar G. Ulmer are genuinely remarkable. The enormous hotel set employs a forced perspective city backdrop, with cars that shrink in size until they’re no bigger than toys. Another angle on the street — seen perhaps in less than six or seven minutes’ worth of footage, is a giant construction with faĉades several stories tall, filled with nighttime traffic. The old man’s apartment block is a featureless concrete mass with housewives leaning out the windows in search of gossip . . . that the old man is afraid will be about him.
It’s arguable that The Last Laugh is the best exemplar of German Expressionism, which by 1924 was already morphing into different forms. Here everything is artificial, planned exactly for what the camera will see. The director pre-visualizes each shot in advance, as opposed to the later ’60s notion of a director as someone that comes up with brilliant notions in the heat of filmmaking. It may have been an exaggeration, but I was taught that for two views of the same room, two different sets might be constructed, with the walls and even furniture distorted to yield a desired visual look. The idea is that there is always only one correct place for the camera — but we were also told that silent films were shot with multiple cameras.
This Murnau film breaks free of the static pictorial expressionism of some earlier classics. Not only does the camera move, the editing builds emotional rhythms, and reveals ‘the truth’ through sophisticated montages and superimpositions. When the scandal of the Old Man’s demotion leaks out, the screen becomes a nightmare of cackling women, spreading the humiliating word. These double exposures all had to be performed in the camera, as the notion of ‘opticals’ was in its infancy. The complex images gave Germany the reputation of the world’s most technically advanced film industry.
Two scenes really stand out. The doorman has a daydream of superhuman strength, lifting with ease luggage that a score of bellboys can’t budge. Murnau films the scene with a diffraction grating on the lens, smearing the image along diagonal planes. Later on, the humiliated man runs in panic from his home. Murnau makes it look as if his own apartment building is tilting forward, a literalization of the idea that ‘his world is closing in on him.’ It’s a more refined version of an effect in Murnau’s own Phantom from two years before, where a row of buildings seem to be tipping over. Phantom is a mostly ordinary-looking movie with regular infusions of strange visuals that have an intellectual, symbolic relationship to the story. In The Last Laugh, the entire film is energized by a camera that adds its comment to each scene and each angle. When the fantastic special effects occur, they’re used for emotional emphasis.
The last section of the movie is the famous “Last Laugh” scene. The film’s logical finish occurs almost fifteen minutes earlier, and it’s as bleak as an ending can possibly be. After a fast fade, Murnau returns for an interesting upbeat coda — that goes on seemingly forever. The old man is suddenly the happiest, richest man in Berlin, arriving at the hotel to partake of an enormous feast. He brings his old buddy, the night watchman (Georg John) along with him. The ending has the feeling of an American silent comedy. Rather than compromise the purity of his tragedy, Murnau gives the audience what it wants, an epilogue in an entirely different mood and style and clearly an item separate from the movie proper. Everybody comes out happy. Over ninety years later, the sight of all that rich food raises our spirits as well.
The Kino Lorber Kino Classics Blu-ray of the restored German version of The Last Laugh is a new encoding of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung restoration that premiered on disc in 2008. The image feels more detailed, sharper and the image steadier. The feature carries a new music score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra; the older (2003) original 1924 score by Giuseppe Becce has been retained as an option.
Also new is a full commentary by Noah Isenberg. A forty-minute German docu called The Making of The Last Laugh goes into the movie’s history in great detail, with plenty of photos of the filming and the construction of the massive sets. The original German version’s few inter-titles have been retained, subbed in English. All are concentrated at the very beginning, and at the start of the comedy epilogue. This aligns with the claims of older critiques of the film.
A second DVD disc contains the Unrestored Export Version of the film, which was produced by the late David Shepard. It has its own music score by Timothy Brock and provides an immediate comparison with the restored original.
The docu and commentary teach us a lot about the differences between the versions. Three cameras rolled to produce separate negatives for distribution in different regions –adequate duping stocks had not yet been developed in 1924. The docu presents many shot-by-shot comparisons of three discrete versions. Murnau’s primary German version is always carefully composed, with the best action chosen. The other two angles are often wider and less discerning about what is shown. The difference is immediately apparent. A key scene of the old man being fired is precise in Murnau’s preferred version, and less interesting in the others. Some of the distinctive camera effects discussed in the critical literature don’t appear in the export versions.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Last Laugh
Supplements: Making-of documentary, images, commentary by Noah Isenberg, second export version of film.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and One DVD in Keep case (note — the DVD is a supplement, not an encoding of the main feature.)
Reviewed: November 13, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson