Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Emil Jannings
For a visual medium, film tends to rely a lot on words – from dialogue to voice-overs to inter-titles, words can play a large part in conveying and advancing stories. With The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau shows just how effectively a story can be told in the absence of words. This is a silent film with just one inter-title (officially, that is; at the beginning there’s a close-up of a letter and at the end a close-up of a newspaper article, both of which could qualify as inter-titles in a casual sense), which might sound daunting but the end result is a thing of absolute beauty.
The story is simple. Emil Jannings stars as a doorman at a fancy hotel who takes pride in his work and especially in his uniform. One day he arrives at the hotel to find another man - a younger, more virile man - standing at the door in the uniform and he’s informed by the management that he’s no longer seen as fit for the physically demanding job. Rather than being fired, though, he's simply demoted to bathroom attendant - a symbolic last stop if ever there was one given that the man he's replacing is being demoted from bathroom attendant to resident in a home for the elderly.
This transition is devastating to him because being a doorman isn’t just his job, but his entire identity; when they strip him of the uniform, they might as well be stripping the very skin from his bones. He becomes desperate and steals the uniform back, wearing it home so that his family and neighbours won’t know the truth. It isn't long, however, before the truth does come out and he finds himself the subject of derision by the people around him, who take great pleasure in taking him down a peg.
The doorman is thoroughly humiliated, defeated and demoralized as he's forced to accept that he's lost his uniform and his position. If the film ended here, it would be pure tragedy, but then there's that one inter-title, the one which introduces an epilogue that only works because it acknowlegdes that it shouldn't work at all. The filmmakers take pity on the doorman and allow him to have the last laugh and we the audience allow them to get away with it because after watching him get kicked around for the better part of an hour and a half, we want to see him turn it around no matter how fantastical the circumstances.
After seeing Nosferatu and Sunrise and loving both, I’ve been trying to seek out more Murnau and with just three films he’s solidified himself as one of my favourite filmmakers. Much like Sunrise, The Last Laugh unfolds in a graceful and dream-like fashion; at times it seems more like a ballet than a film, particularly a dream sequence in which the doorman imagines himself restored to his former glory. The film comes out of a period of time when movies didn’t actually move that much, when cameras didn’t have the same freedom that they do now. In this film and his others, Murnau consistently breaks free of the limitations standing in the way to create works of art that seem truly alive. His ability, as well as the performance by Jannings, which is so rich and full that it does not require words to support it, make it easy to forget about the lack of titles.