The Last Laugh (aka The Last Man / Der letzte Mann)
Germany (1924) Dir. F.W Murnau
A veteran doorman at the prestigious Atlantic Hotel (Emil Jannings) takes huge pride in his work and his uniform, and is respected by co-workers, guests and his neighbourhood. Unfortunately the hotel manager (Hans Unterkircher) is not so deferential and, noticing his old age, decides to demote the doorman to lowly toilet attendant. This comes as crushing blow to him so he tries to hide the truth in an attempt to keep his dignity and his standing within the community.
Made in 1924 this is a landmark film, not just in German expressionism but in cinema techniques. Helmed by the already legendary F.W Murnau (Nosferatu), this tale of the benefits and prejudices engendered by a simple uniform within society saw a huge leap forward in the development of camera techniques by Murnau and his ace cameraman Karl Fruend. Not only did they essentially perfect the moving camera (aka the “dolly”) and the crane technique they also created the steady cam, when moving close up shots and POV shots were required. During a dream sequence influenced by a drunken haze, a shot of the doorman swaying in syncopation with the camera – now a common shot – is seen for the first time and saw Hollywood begging Murnau to reveal his secrets to them.
It is the impressive and revolutionary camerawork that gives the film as much of its power as the towering performance by Emil Jannings – who was only 40 at the time yet utterly convincing as an old man – is so as the unnamed doorman does. Despite his old age the doorman is proud of his job and the respect his uniform brings him and walks tall whenever he is in public. To keep up the pretence of his former status the doorman steals his uniform and wears it to and from work while sinking into depression at the lousy treatment he receives working in the washrooms as opposed to the reverence he received as head doorman. When the truth is finally discovered it becomes a chore for him to keep his head above water as everyone around him turns their back on him.
It may be a tad too melodramatic for modern tastes and the lack of explanatory and dialogue intertitles might also put some people off but as much as this is a masterclass in film making that still amazes 90 years later, it still packs a punch as a critique on the fickleness and snobbery of society.
One for true aficionados perhaps but a milestone film that everyone should check out.