Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Last Laugh

Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), 1924
Dir: F.W. Murnau
January 9, 2010

Without the cop-out ending that the suits made him put in at the end, which he tries to explain with the only title card in the entire film (yes, only one!), this would definitely would have been the first true masterpiece that Murnau could claim to his singular vision. Nosferatu (1922) will have it's place because of the stark imagery that has made it famous, but it really can't compete with The Last Laugh's technical flair or it's sophisticated melodrama. Certainly not the first use of a moving camera, but the way that Murnau uses point-of-view shots, tracking shots, and light, must have been absolutely crazy to see for audiences in 1924. The opening shot, which simulates the p-o-v of someone coming down an elevator looking out glass windows, is just the tip of the iceberg. Just watch the scene where the main character is drunk. Hand held camera a-la 1924?!!? An aging hotel porter (Emil Jannings), who has the respect of his family and the poor tenement he lives in for his occupation, is demoted by the hotel manager to a bathroom attendant because he is getting too old. The result is one of great shame and loss, not just for the man but for his family, and his new job is the source of derision and laughter from the people who once had his respect. These seemingly exaggerated scenes, where people are sniggering and calling to each other throughout the tenement, which is exacerbated in his mind by Murnau, belie a certain national identity that must have hit home pretty hard in Germany, especially the porter's attachment to the uniform which is taken away from him. The reference of Prussia's militaristic culture and the foreshadowing of the rise of Nazism is not intentional, I think, but just a result of Muranu's inherent Germanness. The fact that he goes back to the hotel at night and steals the uniform back, and then deceitfully wears it home even though he no longer has that privilege speaks volumes on how people view rank and occupation there. It gets to the point where the porter is so ashamed that he even goes back the next night to hand the uniform back in, and ends up down in the bathroom, seemingly left to ponder the rest of his miserable life despite the best efforts of a sympathetic nightwatchman. This is where the title card appears, and Murnau basically says that this is where he would have liked to have ended the film, but the "author" was inexplicably kinder to the character (and, in Murnau's mind, not realistic). We find out that the ex-porter/washroom attendant has inherited a vast fortune, and he is living it up with his friend the nightwatchman at the hotel. It's devastatingly subversive (and painfully sad) because it's tacked on and spurious. Even in this deeply upsetting moment for Murnau, he was able to tack on some meaning to that ending. It was the 20s, the Great War was over, and money was starting to dominate culture over military power, especailly in Germany where wealth was becoming more skewed because of inflation. That doesn't stop it from being a completely unnecessary epilogue. But seriously, don't let it stop you from seeing this. Even if it's not the masterpiece it's supposed to be, it's pretty important for all the technical innovations that are still being used today.


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