The porter of the Atlantic Hotel is not a rich man, nor is he one of any cashable power or privilege. But when he dons his oddly warlike uniform, he is a dead ringer for Emperor Wilhelm I (surely no mere coincidence), exuding regal authority with his rotund frame and preened muttonchop beard. So he enjoys the bonhomie of the guests for whom he hails taxis and ferries luggage, and he commands the reverence of his lowly neighbours, fellow residents of a rundown tenement block in an unnamed German city. Should he suddenly lose this uniform and the nebulous prestige it affords, what would become of him, not to mention that society in which so much can rest on so unstable a thing as pride? This seems to be the question at the sad yet sour heart of Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau, 1924), a film suffused with game-changing innovations and mixed sympathies.

The story is a simple one. The porter (played by silent-era mega-star Emil Jannings) arrives at work to find a younger, brawnier but identically dressed bloke in his place, evoking the doppelgӓnger trope so beloved of the German Expressionists. 1 In a scene of startling visual and performative economy, the porter is peeled out of his uniform and “demoted” to washroom attendant, shuffled into a shadowy, subterranean lavatory – one of the film’s most overt examples of physical place becoming mental space. Legend has it that a studio boss later mocked this plot device on the grounds that washroom attendants apparently earned more than porters, which, if true, further establishes the film as one more concerned with senility and obsolescence than it is with poverty and working-class plight, at least initially. 2 Faced with a slew of indignities, from the belittling glances of damp-handed patrons to the grinning schadenfreude of those neighbours who once held him in high esteem, the porter hurtles towards irrelevance. His may not be a fall from the greatest of heights; but, goodness, is the ground hard.

Having co-written what is widely considered the bellwether work of German Expressionist cinema, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920), screenwriter Carl Mayer had a knack for sculpting drama in the dank, unlit corners of his characters’ minds, and he once again found a complimentary sensibility in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (age 35, having directed 13 films to boot), who had recently proven his bona fides with the moody Nosferatu (1922). To bring to life what Mayer had conceived as an anti-military parable (though the director would widen – and perhaps muddy – the thematic scope), Murnau enlisted the talents of art director Walter Röhrig, who had helped craft Caligari’s iconic nightmare aesthetic. But Rohrig and creative partner Robert Herlth eschewed the excesses of Wiene’s picture, opting instead for a subtler register and imbuing largely realist structures with the slightest hints of angularity and distortion to create an uncanny oppressiveness. The city that they birthed on a barren studio back lot is an achievement in scale, verisimilitude and forced perspective, able to take on a suddenly predatory quality in just the right light, with just the right lens. 3

The Last Laugh is perhaps best known for two things: the near absence of intertitles, resulting in a narrative fluidity previously unseen in silent cinema, and the highly mobile photography of optics whiz Karl Freund, whose contributions were so astonishing that he and (of course) Murnau were soon courted by a string of moneyed west-coast Americans. 4 Whether strapping the camera to his chest or dangling it from storeys-high rigs, Freund improvised tirelessly, plunging his camera and the viewer into the overheating mind of the old porter as he navigates an unkind new reality. From a depiction of drunkenness that pre-empts Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) by almost 50 years to a handful of cinema’s earliest tracking shots, Freund helped Murnau kickstart a mode of filmic expression that honours the subjectivity of both the protagonist and the filmmaker. Some of the film’s boldest moments even take place in the Porter’s absence, as word of his downfall spreads with spiteful speed through the apartment block, though it could be argued that Murnau’s warped collages of gossiping neighbours are projections of his protagonist’s own simmering paranoia. Where most works of Expressionist cinema indulge a certain catatonia/panicked stillness, The Last Laugh often slips into states of literal restlessness.

Viewed through the lens of an infant Weimar Republic, regionally reviled and fiscally bereft after World War I, the psychic landscape of The Last Laugh is surely reflective of a nation’s humbling transition from empire to republic, militarism to grudging diplomacy, prosperity to austerity. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Expressionist movement, seemingly purpose-built for externalising anxiety and dread, came to a boil in the early 1920s. Murnau’s urbanscape, with its peering high-rises and hive-like downtown is a vision of subtly dehumanising early-century modernisation, another stroke of cultural whiplash that would leave a relic like the Porter disoriented. In keeping with this theme, the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door is positioned by Murnau as a recurring motif, an ever-present reminder that change – and more ominously, repetition – is inevitable. It’s a portal through which the porter is propelled day in, day out as he scrambles to regain something of his former self, if only in the eyes of others.

With his unmatched gift for emotive physicality, a hunched and unkempt Jannings lurches from despair to denial to delirium to … well, this depends on which ending one chooses to accept. The German title Der letzte Mann (The Last Man) suggests that Murnau more than flirted with the idea of ending the film on its saddest, loneliest note. 5 With such a conclusion, The Last Laugh could have been a threnody for the victims of change, the remnants of old days and old ways, but also a slyly triumphant dusting of hands on the part of Murnau and Mayer, who became a pacifist and a progressive postwar. The prevailing version of the film, however, concludes with a curious epilogue that earns the film its English title – curious in its seeming (on face value) like a happy ending crafted largely for the sake of boosting audience morale and thus commercial viability, when it is quite clearly a farce that gently laments the replacement of “the uniform” with something far more insidious. 6 The implications of the porter’s ultimate triumph are doubly troubling given Jannings’s subsequent involvement with the Nazi Party, to the extent that he was named “Artist of the State” by Joseph Goebbels in 1936 (but not before he had won the inaugural Oscar for Best Actor in 1929). 7 With the gift of hindsight, one can see that The Last Laugh could never have been, in 1924, the wry, somewhat prophetic tragedy that it is nearly a century on.

• • •

Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924 Germany 77 min)

Prod. Co: UFA Prod: Erich Pommer Dir: F.W. Murnau Scr: Carl Mayer Phot: Karl Freund Ed: Elfi Böttrich Prod. Des: Edgar G. Ulmer Art. Dir: Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig Ass. Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda

Endnotes:

  1. David Greven, “The Last Laugh (Web Exclusive),” Cineaste 34 (Summer 2009), https://www.cineaste.com/summer2009/the-last-laugh-web-exclusive/
  2. Dave Kehr, “The Last Laugh,” Chicago Reader, n.d., https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-last-laugh/Film?oid=1062767
  3. Der Letzte Mann: Das Making Of (Luciano Berriatúa, 2003); included as special feature on The Last Laugh Blu-ray, Kino Lorber, 2017.
  4. Noah Isenberg, audio commentary, The Last Laugh Blu-ray, Kino Lorber, 2017.
  5. Alyssa Katz, “The Last Laugh,” The Current, 20 April 1994, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/903-the-last-laugh
  6. Klaus Kreimeier, The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 144–5.
  7. Roger Ebert, “The Last Laugh,” in The Great Movies II, (New York: Broadway Books, 2005) p. 232–6.