THE LAST LAUGH (1924) B/W "silent" 88m dir: F.W. Murnau
w/Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller
One of the most unusual and interesting of Murnau's films, which shows directorial techniques imitated half a century later by lesser European directors. Jannings plays an elderly hotel doorman forced to retire and surrender his precious uniform, which gave him status in the neighborhood.
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films : "The final shooting script was develped in collaboration with Jannings, Murnau, and the cameraman, Karl Freund, who later described his own involvement: 'He had considered using the moving camera from the start. He asked me if I could film an actress in long shot and then, by traveling forward, show a close up of only her eyes, this being the moment when the doorman's aunt discovers that he has been put in charge of the lavatories. He said he wanted my camera on a dolly at all times.' When [Carl] Mayer [the screenwriter] saw the possibilities of exploiting this technique he rewrote his script in terms of camera movements. Mayer, Freund, and Murnau developed effects that were then very new. For example, in the scene in which Jannings, in the depths of despair, gets drunk, he remains still while the camera weaves about. Never have the possibilities of camera movement been so fully exploited. As Marcel Carne, then a young critic, described it in 1929: 'The camera on a trolley glides, rises, zooms, or weaves where the story takes it. It is no longer fixed, but takes part in the action and becomes a character in the drama. The actors are no longer simply placed before the camera; rather it sneaks up on them when they are least expecting it. This technique in The Last Laugh allows us to know the smallest corner of the lugubrious Atlantic Hotel. The camera descends in the elevator, revealing the hall whose vastness is increased by the tracking shot, takes us through the revolving door, and ejects us under Jannings' stately umbrella.' This introductory scene described by Carne set the film's tone and style. Adopting the Kammerspiel approach, this tragedy of ordinary people respects the rule of the three dramatic unities --- although it uses two locations, the hotel and the doorman's home. It dispenses with titles (though this has recently been questioned) and uses symbolic images such as the revolving door or a wheel of fortune in key scenes. In addition to the moving camera, Murnau uses angle shots to express ideas: high angle shots belittling Jannings in the depths of the lavatory and low angle shots to emphasize his triumph. As the mistreated doorman, Jannings gives a restrained, though occasionally mannered, performance; in the expressionist tradition, he makes much use of his movements and gestures for expressive effect. The film's great success in the USA led Carl Laemmle to object: 'Everybody knows that a lavatory attendant makes a lot more money than a doorman.'"