One of Murnau’s most treasured silent works, this tale of an old man who loses his dignity due to an unexpected work demotion is one for the ages.
Dir. F.W. Murnau
1924 | Germany | Drama | 90 mins | 1.33:1 | Silent
Not rated – likely to be PG
Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller
Plot: An aging doorman, after being fired from his prestigious job at a luxurious Hotel is forced to face the scorn of his friends, neighbours and society.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Dignity
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
F.W. Murnau’s films are quite something, and in The Last Laugh we see one of the great performances of the silent era by one of finest actors of the time, Emil Jannings, who plays an old doorman of a high-end hotel.
He is proud of his job, donning his ceremonial-looking uniform with gusto every morning. He is greeted by everyone in the neighbourhood and enjoys the respect given to him.
But when he is unexpectedly demoted to become a toilet cleaner who waits on rich, snobby bathroom users, his world crashes. How can he face his newly-married niece and her family?
As rumours of his lowly job start to spread in the neighbourhood, Murnau’s film becomes an unfortunate, and at times, depressing tale of a human being who has lost his dignity.
Jannings has one of the most expressive faces in all of cinema, and here he pulls off a performance where a sense of personal tragedy is permanently etched in his contorted face.
Murnau’s use of a seemingly unhinged camera and optical effects are breathtaking, especially when they visually express the psychological duress that Jannings’ character faces.
But what is most unique about The Last Laugh is that it doesn’t have the usual intertitles to tell the story—instead, the story is told from both visual and performative levels, which is one of many reasons that the film remains as one of Murnau’s most treasured works, alongside Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927).
The title of the film relates mostly to the epilogue—to say more would be to spill the beans. If you are new to Murnau, this is the best place to start.