Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Last Laugh (Murnau. 1924)

"There are no title cards telling us what the images are - they are allowed to speak for themselves."


F.W. Murnau is a master storyteller. If you are ever given the opportunity to watch a film made by the great German expressionist, I promise that you are in for a treat. Murnau is rightfully most famous for his pioneering work with horror films. He is the man responsible for the legendary imagery behind Nosferatu and Faust (1926). But somewhere hiding in his filmography is a gem entitled The Last Laugh. Though this film can be considered terrifying, it is not, by any means, a horror film. Knowing this ahead of time, I was worried about silly things like progression and watchablity. But Murnau managed to surprise me with what has become one of my all time favorite silent films.

The Last Laugh
is a silent film from 1924. I understand that most of my readers will ignore the film based on that last sentence alone. This is even more unfortunate than usual because The Last Laugh is one of the easiest classic films to watch that I have ever seen. Murnau chose to not use any dialogue cards; the entire story is told through physical movements and body language. And though that sounds like a rough watch, everything has an unaltered flow to it. This has to do with a couple of working aspects starting with the screenplay.

Carl Mayer, the screenwriter, wrote what was sure to become one of the all time great expressionist screenplays. The story follows an elderly man who works as a prestigious porter at a luxurious hotel. He loves his job and does it very well. Murnau and Mayer spend the first twenty minutes of the film showing you the love he has for his work and the respect that he has from his family and neighbors. They also greatly emphasis the porter's love for his golden uniform. But, after his boss finds him taking a break, all of that respect and love is taken away. The porter has been fired from his post, stripped of his uniform and reduced to the lowly task of restroom resident. Humiliated and beaten down, the old man never truly regains happiness in life.*

Of course, the most important part of a film like this is having a main character who is worth sympathizing over. Emil Jannings plays the role of the elderly hotel porter. If you are like me, you find that name strangely familiar. Yes, this is the same Emil Jannings who was awarded the first ever Academy Award for best actor in 1929. And though the Academy was not handing out awards in 1924, his performance in The Last Laugh is undoubtedly his best work. He is heartbreaking as the over-the-hill working man. His representation of a post-WWI stiff in Germany is outright brilliant. Every movement is perfectly calculated, and every facial expression says more than any dialogue card ever could. In one scene, we see the porter being manually stripped of his much-beloved uniform. I challenge you to watch Jannings' eyes throughout this scene's entirety. You will progress to the next moment as a different person. Jannings shows us what silent film acting is supposed to look like.

The thing that surprised me most about The Last Laugh was how easy it was to watch. Some silent films, especially those without any cutaways, have a tendency to drag on and become unwatchable. Murnau obviously concentrated greatly on flow and rhythm to make his picture seem more moving. This is not a film that looks like 1924 in quality, nor does it have the monotonous lollygag of a more modern melodrama. Instead, the audience is treated to a perfectly paced and genuinely saddening film.

The Last Laugh is a foreign/silent film that was made before your grandparents were born, but this does not mean it should be ignored. Murnau gives gifts to the fans of cinema with his mastery in camerawork, story progressing and agenda manipulating. I loved The Last Laugh for a multitude of reasons from acting to direction. It is an all time great tear-jerker.

*NOTE* I am reviewing this film based off of the original and intended ending. The studio forced an ill-advised twist to the end of this picture to make it happy. This ending is disgustingly out of place, and I would advise any filmgoer to simply ignore it.

The Last Laugh: B

My Next Film....Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Richie. 1998)

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