The Last Laugh “Der Letzte Mann” or The Last Man (1924) Director: F.W. Murnau
What do you get when you combine the acting of Emil Jannings, the screenwriting of Carl Meyer, and the directing of F.W. Murnau? The result is a brilliant little tragic farce of silent cinema. Much like Murnau’s Sunrise, The Last Laugh takes an astonishingly simple story and transforms it into a classic. It is a wonderfully sardonic film. Despite having a somewhat absurd plot, this is clearly the work of a master auteur. Carl Meyer’s screenplay (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) is the most famous example of a Kammerspielfilm or a “chamber-drama” film.
The film follows the story of an unnamed doorman at the famous Atlantic Hotel. He is extremely well respected by his family and neighbors for his ‘prestigious’ position. The owner sees him sitting down to relax his muscles after lifting luggage and concludes that the doorman is getting too old for the job. He thus demotes the doorman to the position of washroom attendant. In a cruel twist of fate, the man now holds towels for wealthy men while they smoke big cigars.
The unnamed man goes to great lengths to hide his shameful new position from his family and friends, but soon his wife discovers his secret when she surprises him at work with lunch. His family disowns him. The man then descends into a pit of despair as he wanders back to the washroom at the Atlantic to fall asleep. The only person who is kind to the man is the night watchman who covers him with a coat for warmth.
Here, the film’s sole title card appears reading:
“Here the story should really end, for, in real life,
the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death”
However a sham comedic ending occurs wherein a newspaper reveals that the man has suddenly inherited a vast fortune from a Mexican millionaire named U.G. Monen, a patron whom he once cared for in the hotel washroom. Now very wealthy, the man returns to the hotel where he eats a large meal along with the night watchman and they celebrate their riches, handsomely tipping all the doormen on their way out to a carriage, while another man sits begging for money.
The film was the first of Murnau’s films for UFA Studios and everytthing about this movie was compelling to me, not least of which is Murnau’s unique use of the camera. In one scene, a camera is strapped to a man’s chest as he rides a bicycle, in another a camera is sent down a wire from a window to the street below. The first ever “dolly” was used for this film during shots through the hotel as Emil Jannings moved through it. It was entirely filmed at UFA Studios using large elaborate sets for the hotel. Murnau famously noted that the film was utterly absurd because “everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman.” At the time, a young Alfred Hitchcock was working at UFA Studios in Germany and was, no doubt, exposed to this film.
Emil Jannings starred in other projects of F.W. Murnau’s including as Mephistopheles in Faust and a number of Nazi propaganda films until his death in 1950 of liver cancer. When the Allies invaded Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar with him to justify his allegiance to the Allies. He won the first ever Oscar for Best Actor in 1929 for his role in The Way of the Flesh and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. His Hollywood career was short-lived after the advent of talkies because his thick German accent didn’t sit well with the general public in the U.S. and thus he returned to Europe.