For this fantastic screening of Murnau’s The Last Laugh, I wrote the programme notes (below) and introduced the film. It was a wonderful evening, with stunning musical accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulos.
FW Murnau’s masterful The Last Laugh (1924) has two great stars. The first is Emil Jannings, who takes the lead role in this urban tragedy, as a man who loses his position and his self-respect. It’s an unforgettably moving performance from the man who would go on to win the first ever Best Actor Oscar. It’s pertinent that Jannings is known for playing heroes and great figures from history – here he plays a hotel doorman, puffed up with pride, cruelly demoted to a toilet attendant. But Jannings gives the hero of The Last Laugh the dignity of a king or an emperor – and the emotional stakes are just as high. The film has no dialogue, not even in caption form; Jannings’ mobile face, his hulking body, express his character’s shame and misery more eloquently than words.
The second star is Murnau’s famous “unchained camera”, manipulated by cinematographer Karl Freund. It’s a technique beautifully explained by French film director Marcel Carné as a device whereby: “The camera … 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.” To create this weightless, subjective magic, the camera was strapped to Freund’s torso while he cycled around the studio, , suspended from wires, tilted and mounted on a swing. Some of those moves were then reversed in post-production. The effect is liberating, graceful and betrays little of the mechanical effort required to achieve it. The camera stays close to Jannings; he is in almost every shot, and when he isn’t, the camera often presents his point-of view.
The Last Laugh is a great film, and a puzzling one. The German title, Der letzte Mann, or The Last Man, better expresses the first nine-tenths of the film. The “last laugh” arrives in a strange, dreamlike coda. How do you read this? As a sop to the American export market, a critique of Hollywood style, or a satisfactory conclusion for our downtrodden hero?
In the end, Murnau and Jannings had the last laugh – the success of this film enabled them to go on to make a big-budget production that would further seal Murnau’s reputation as a director of genius, and Jannings as a great film actor: Faust. And for both men, Hollywood soon came calling …