Rivaled only by Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst as Germany’s greatest director of the silent age, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was a tireless formal innovator exhilaratingly difficult to pin down. If his 1922 horror epic Nosferatu represented an apex of Expressionist sensibility, The Last Laugh was a heady synthesis of trends shaping Weimar-era film and theater. Expressionist stylization—surreal architecture, exaggerated shadowplay, nightmarish hallucination—holds firm ground in The Last Laugh, but this landmark film is just as much the product of a humanistic backlash against Expressionism’s metaphysical indulgences, inspired by the theater of Murnau’s legendary mentor Max Reinhardt.
The Last Laugh tells a simple tale through intensely subjective devices. A hotel doorman is forced by old age to trade in his gold-buttoned paramilitary finery for a lavatory attendant’s smock, falling from graceful dignity to stooped humiliation in a peculiarly German warning against the decline of benign authority. In contrast to the mechanical wonders of the modern world surrounding him—cars, trains, neon lights, elevators—the porter, and his old-fashioned values, are outdated hulks. A son of rural Westphalia, Murnau located terror in the countryside for Nosferatu; with The Last Laugh, he places it in the city, its reflective surfaces generating a frenzied kaleidoscope.
While Nosferatu‘s haunting effects were accomplished through the imaginative use of previously established techniques—the phantom carriage ride to the vampire’s castle, for example, relied on stop-motion filming and the insertion of a few feet of negative into the sequence—The Last Laugh goes places no film had gone before. Murnau had used panning shots in Nosferatu, and cameras had been moved briefly off their tripods in a few other films, but this was the first time that a mobile camera was thoroughly integrated into the production of a movie. Murnau pulls no punches, thrusting the moving camera into the very first shot. It descends to the hotel lobby in an open elevator, surveying the ant farm of wealthy patrons below; traversing the lobby, it scoots forward—resting atop a bicycle steered by cinematographer Karl Freund—to a set of revolving doors, the rainy street, and bustling porter visible through the glass. For the porter’s drunken dream sequence, Freund strapped the camera to his chest (and batteries to his back, for balance), stumbling around in mock inebriety to capture a shot that lasts over a minute onscreen. The result is the birth of a radically subjective cinema, plumbing the psyche of the porter and seeing the world as his bewildered eyes do. The camera practically becomes a character in itself—actors can actually be seen trying to keep out of its way.
The Last Laugh is also a bold experiment in narrative, completely—with one significant exception—eschewing intertitles. (Original German prints had about fifteen intertitles, still vastly fewer than the norm, though their provenance has been questioned.) Combined with the moving camera, the absence of title breaks allows for a stunning fluidity of visual expression, the actors guiding the story through pantomime. As the porter, Emil Jannings is at once hypnotic and overbearing in one of the key roles of his career, so graphically agonized by his downfall that his slumped, semi-catatonic figure can be painful to watch.
Some critics gave much of the credit for The Last Laugh‘s technical and stylistic innovations to Carl Mayer, Germany’s signal screenwriter of the era (he also co-wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The moving camera, for instance, had previously been used in Sylvester, written by Mayer and directed by lesser light Lupu Pick. Mayer had first eliminated intertitles in Scherben, another collaboration with Pick, who was slated to direct and star in The Last Laugh until he and Mayer had a falling out. Mayer conceived The Last Laugh as part three of this trilogy, each film a fierce post-Expressionist foray into the trough between the old world and the new. As Freund praised the writer’s cinematic instincts, “A script by Carl Mayer is already a film.”
The film’s ending was one originally planned by Mayer. The one intertitle introduces “quite an improbable epilogue,” a sequence jarringly different in sensibility from anything preceding it. Film historians believe it was the result of pressure from the UFA studios, while Jannings claimed in his autobiography that he had personally requested a new ending. The Last Laugh, the title chosen for the film’s American release, reflects the upbeat coda; the original German title was Der Letzte Mann, or The Last Laugh, characterizing the porter adrift in the revolving-door chaos of the modern world (and cribbing a phrase from Nietszche’s anxious take on modernity). Whatever his directives, Murnau playsthe epilogue as belabored farce, a grotesque parody of a happy ending that can easily be mistaken for the real thing. And it most probably was: based on the film’s national success, William Fox brought Murnau to Hollywood.
Not surprisingly, the strictures at Fox dwarfed those Murnau had faced in Germany. After making two and a half of the four movies in his contract (including the classic Sunrise), he cut loose for Tahiti, where he composed the anthropological spectacle Tabu. Disregarding his subjects’ warnings, Murnau built a bungalow on sacred ground; his death in a California car accident a week before Tabu‘s premiere remains as much of an enigma as his life. With much of his early German work now lost and the films of his future unmade, each work by Murnau is a tantalizing piece of a beautiful puzzle. His overarching intentions, however, were always sparklingly clear: he wanted the fledgling film medium to have a language all its own. “Our whole effort,” he told Motion Picture Classic magazine upon his arrival in the U.S., “must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them . . . the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage and the written book. That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art. That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh.”