When talking about German Expressionism, people will speak of the twisted landscape in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the dystopic vision of Metropolis and creeping shadows of Nosferatu. Few, however, will mention The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau’s tragic masterpiece centred on a proud hotel porter who gets relegated to washroom attendant. Although less sensationally stylised as other German silent films, this was credited for inventing the unchained camera technique (Entfesselte Kamera) which helped form the cinematic landscape that exists today.
Emil Jannings plays the veteran doorman of the picture. We are introduced to him as he proudly operates the door to a prestigious hotel as customers come and go. The pride he feels in this position is epitomised within his uniform, which he wears with great honour, but when the manager believes his aged appearance might be damaging to the image of the building, he’s moved to the role of restroom attendant. Stripped of his beloved uniform and ashamed of his demotion, the disgraced doorman elects not tell his family and friends, but when they discover the nature of his deception, he is ridiculed for it; believing him to have been lying about his high status all along.
The film culminates in an infamously bizarre ending that is completely out of kilter with the rest of the narrative. It feels unwarranted, tacky even, and has understandably attracted much criticism. We should not let the finale spoil what preceded it, however, as what we have is a poignant, powerful picture that is dramatically enticing and devastatingly heartbreaking. Though the last act is undeniably unconvincing, the sudden change in tone does have a strange oneiric quality that leaves it open for interpretation. If the viewer wishes, it can be both seen as a wishful fantasy or an ironic reality.
The rapid downfall of a noble man can seem over-exaggerated, and Murnau himself stated the premise to be absurd as a washroom attendant would earn more than a doorman, but that doesn’t make this picture any less believable while watching it. Without the need of practically any intertitles, except one notable one at the end, the film manages to tell an intricate, harrowing tale through Jannings’s incredible performance and Murnau’s masterful camerawork. This may not be as well-loved as the director’s other work, such as Nosferatu or Sunrise, but it is a wonderfully crafted classic that discreetly influenced generations of filmmaking.
(6-star awarded for films beyond normal standards)