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The experienced doorman at the Atlantic Hotel is quite proud of his position, his responsibilities, and his uniform. One busy, rainy night, he has to take a short rest after lugging a heavy suitcase in from the rain. Unfortunately, his manager comes by during the short time when he is not performing his duties. The next day, when the doorman arrives for work, he learns that he has been replaced as doorman, and has been re-assigned to the less strenuous but purely menial position of washroom attendant. Stunned and humiliated, the old man struggles to carry on with his life. Written by
Although the Golden Twenties of German cinema, a golden age corresponding approximately to the era from the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919 to Hitler's absorption of the German film industry for the purposes of the Nazi regime, has come to be widely associated in public consciousness with the grotesque, the mystical and the fantastic of German Expressionism, indeed with such iconic figures to spearhead it as Nosferatu, the Somnabulist, Dr. Caligari, Mephisto and the Golem, all of them having their roots in the folklore or a fantastic reimagined past, there was also a more realistic, if no less tragic, depiction of a middle-class present with a focus on a psychological, as opposed to metaphysical, aspect.
By 1924 the acceptance of the Dawes Plan by Germany had lulled the German Republic into a sense of economic stability that was to last until the stock market crash in 1929. It was that same stability that most hurt the German film industry, as the Dawes Plan imposed the reduction of all exports, leaving many independent production companies without foreign markets for their product. In the years to come Hollywood would seize this unique financial opportunity to break down its only European rival, but before major box-office flops like Fritz Lang's epic rendition of Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927) and FW Murnau's Faust (1926) would bring UFA to its proverbial knees in debt to German banks, little films like The Last Laugh (1924) and Varieté (1925) were the toast of the town in both sides of the Atlantic.
Emil Jannings plays an aging hotel porter who takes great pride and pleasure in his job and especially the lavish uniform that comes with it. In the miserable middle-class neighborhood he lives, being able to wake up in the morning and go to work dressed like in such a prestigious uniform is like being a general. That is until a younger man is hired in his place and he's demoted to the, undignified in his mind, job of lavatory attendant. Not bearing to lose face back home with gossiping neighbors and relatives, the old porter steals back his uniform and returns home as if nothing happened, the uniform a symbol not only of his social status but also of purpose in life.
What is most striking about The Last Laugh is the way Murnau externalizes the psychological in a grand, theatric way that could only work on stage and in silent cinema. Watch for example the look of pure anguish and horror in Janning's face when he's asked to turn in his uniform, stripping it off like he's being skinned alive. Recoiling without it into a state of defeat and abandonment like a man stripped of his own identity, with nothing to live for.
Obsessed with artistic control and exercising complete authority over the minutest details of lighting and décor, German directors pushed for an increasingly studio-bound cinema to the point that UFA in the years between 1919 and 1927 became the best equipped movie studio in the western world. The Last Laugh is no exception. The facades of apartment blocks in the background with light slanting over them, the low-class neighborhood, the busy street in front of the hotel, all of them replicated in great detail within studio limits. It's within this geography that Murnau transposes Jannings' internal world. As is proper for the inward journey of the self the protagonist faces, the aging porter starts at the busy front of the hotel only to find himself exiled in the dark bowels of the basement where he remains hidden, that is until the film's tacked-on happy ending.
The only false note in an otherwise perfect film is the happy ending Murnau and scriptwriter Carl Mayer (of Caligari fame) were forced to devise by UFA executives anxious for the box office success of their movie. It's not that it doesn't work because such a tragic tale precludes a happy ending, after all one of the most memorable endings in all cinema is that of Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and it doesn't get any more saccharine than that, but because it happens in such a tacked-on deus-ex-machina fashion that it feels like a complete cop-out. It's lame now and it was lame then and Murnau no doubt understood that as he flashes a title card (the only title card in the film) more or less apologizing that "that's how the movie would've ended if I didn't have a boss to keep happy so here's a they-lived-happily-ever-after epilogue, take it with a pinch of salt or ignore it altogether". It's noteworthy however that it's not pure schmaltzy tripe. It feels as though Murnau is taking a perverse, vulgar pleasure in delivering what was asked of him.
Exceptionally photographed, with a modern feel to Murnau's camera-work that places it well ahead of its time compared to other silents, a great example of purely visual storytelling without the cumbersome crutches of the title cards, The Last Laugh stands not only as a triumph of Weimar cinema but as masterpiece almost 100 years later.
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