The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924)
The Last Laugh is another of those films that took me far too long to get to, and now that I’ve finally reached it I’m scolding myself for holding off for so long. Murnau is, of course, nothing short of a cinematic genius and my affinity for him is undying, as his Sunrise… is permanently lodged amongst my favourite films ever. The Last Laugh is another masterpiece to add to his collection, albeit one which threatens to tear me apart with joy (of the film’s genius) on the one hand, and sadness (of the film’s story) on the other.
Looking at it from a purely contemporary perspective, as if people weren’t averse enough to silent films – to watch one without any intertitles to guide us… well, I can understand why lesser film enthusiasts would hold off. Allow me to place emphasis on the “lesser” however, for it’s surely impossible to term one’s self as a lover of cinema whilst refusing to experience one of the most cinematic of all films? Murnau’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing – he disregards words almost completely, and in doing so exposes the goldmine that is the medium’s potential. Karl Freund’s cinematography should not be underestimated at any cost: his camerawork sits proudly amongst the most exquisitely choreographed in history (alongside Murnau’s other films, of course) and the way in which it darts and glides around the sets gifts an irresistible vitality to proceedings. I personally was sold from the get-go, with that dance in the rain which beautifully encapsulated the hustle-bustle of Weimar life.
Of course, the camerawork alone is not enough to make this a masterpiece. The film has another great trick up its sleeve in the performance of Emil Jannings. So much has been said about his performance that it seems futile to even tread that same territory, but whatever: he is MAGNIFICENT. In every sense of the word. His exaggerated mannerisms are appropriate for upholding the expressionist tone that the film demands from him, but what’s stunning about Jannings is the depth with which he imbues his theatricality. His eyes radiate happiness, pain and exhaustion with effortless ease and his entire body seems to follow these feelings through – look no further than his demotion scene for proof. Jannings really does embody the very fibre of this character, and seems perfectly attuned to the nature of his plight – it’s a performance that is perhaps best described as operatic in its essence. Moreover, the relationship between Jannings’ performance and Freund’s work provides much of the film’s power – the camera consistently reflects Jannings’ mindset, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. The visual collage of his neighbours’ faces cruelly laughing at him; the moment when the hotel seems to fall on top of him; that brilliant drunken dream – all of this is great within its own right, but it’s all the more wonderful thanks to Jannings’ touching reactions.
It’s important to note that other element which makes The Last Laugh so brilliant: Carl Mayer’s story. The idea of a man who defines himself completely by his uniform is thought-provoking to say the least, especially given the historical context of the film. Jannings’ character is so enveloped by his profession, and so consumed by the (painfully humbling) social status that it provides that he loses touch with him-self. The fact that all the other characters in the film are revealed to be equally concerned with these ideas perhaps says a lot more about Weimar social mores than we initially think. Mayer and Murnau paint a powerful portrait of society, and expertly chart the decline of their old man – but there is the unavoidable issue of that ending. Interestingly enough, it introduces the film’s only use of an intertitle (excluding the opening) – and even more intriguingly, the intertitle sees Murnau pulling his audience out of the filmic world to take an apologetic tone for the epilogue that follows. Understandably I think, I found this both bizarre and extremely detrimental to such a brilliant work of art – after all this sadness, surely Murnau wouldn’t pull out the cheap happy ending on me? He does. And yet, at the same time… he doesn’t. As one watches the epilogue, it becomes apparent that Jannings and Murnau are together enacting a fantastic lampooning of this very idea of a “happy ending.” Jannings’ operatic performance again comes into play, but this time it’s boisterous and comical to the point of absurdity – it doesn’t complement the action, but actually undermines it and thereby accentuates the implausibility of the fairy-tale scenario that we’re presented with. What we’re ultimately left with is the unbearably poignant image of what could never have been – so although in one sense it’s out-of-sync with everything that’s occurred before, in another it’s perhaps the perfect and most heartbreaking conclusion that’s possible. I don’t know if this ending was a request on the producers part, or whether it was agreed upon by the filmmakers, but Murnau’s ability to manipulate such phoniness into something so tender is perhaps one of THE everlasting testaments to his genius.