Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Last Laugh

Der letzte Mann; silent drama, Germany, 1924; D: F. W. Murnau, S: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller

An old man works as the doorman in the prestigious hotel Atlantic. Due to his uniform, the neighbors, in a poor suburb, treat him with respect. One morning, the man is shocked to find a new doorman at the hotel, while the manager informs him that he was given a new position - the bathroom attendant. Feeling this a personal shame, he tries to hide the fact by sneaking out of the hotel with his old uniform so that the neighbors could see him. However, once the truth spreads, his neighbors laugh at him. Still, a rich man dies in his hand, so the old man inherits all his fortune and is back on top.

One of F. W. Murnau's most famous films, "The Last Laugh" is a simple, yet clever allegory about the status in society and its effects on people who fall a notch lower than before. Abandoning any intertitles (except one that explains the 'plot twist' at the end), "The Last Laugh" is often complimented for establishing the film as a distinctive medium since it told the entire story only thanks to images and visualization of events and gestures: in the opening act, the nameless protagonist is shown as a man who is proud of his job as a hotel doorman and wears his uniform even while returning back to his apartment, since his neighbors treat him with respect in such an appearance. Murnau even has a few clever metafilm touches here, since the camera is placed slightly lower compared to the protagonist during that first part of the film, to symbolize his pride.

Once the hero is 'demoted' to a bathroom attendant, the film shows his psychological stages of shame and inability to live with such an position (he borrows his old uniform from the closet and runs away from the hotel to put it on as soon as he is behind the corner, because he wants his neighbors to believe he still has the same job ), though the film is slightly overstretched and melodramatic at times, even with a few unintentionally comical scenes (his wife screams and runs away when she sees him in the bathroom for the first time). The camera has a few good frames (the opening of the camera descending in an elevator down to the street in front of the hotel; the hero imagining that a building is falling down on him...), yet it never reaches the heights of the visual style of Murnau's other films like "Faust" and "Nosferatu". A strong, albeit conventional essay about the relationship between appearance and self-esteem.


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