Nary a Word: 'The Last Laugh' and 'The General'

Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh

The sound era added nothing thematically or tonally that wasn't already perfected in silent films.

To call a movie 'great' is to refer not to historical importance (though there's that), but to its capacity to have an impact on those with no nostalgia to attach to it and no historical perspective to contextualize it. In this regard The Last Laugh or Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) is one of the great movies, silent or otherwise, in my life. This wasn't the film that made me understand how silents could be as fresh as this morning (that had been The Docks of New York), but it was the one that made me realize with amazement that the sound era added nothing thematically or tonally that wasn't already perfected in silent films.

There are standard reasons for praising F.W. Murnau's exhilarating kammerspiel of 1924. With its political sensibilities firmly on the plight of the unenlightened masses victimized by social issues (unemployment, age discrimination, the class system), it tells a simple anecdote of a proud doorman, all mustache and broad-shouldered uniform and shiny brass buttons, who suddenly finds himself demoted to washroom attendant. This crushes his inflated sense of worth as he clings to the illusion of status.

That doorman is played by Emil Jannings (age 40), one of the most ubiquitous and celebrated actors of his time for the variety of his roles, sometimes in theatrical costume epics that use a lot of acting. Today he's remembered for three movies in which he embodied the pompous dignity of the Old World brought to humiliation by changing modern values: sex in The Blue Angel, revolution (and movies) in The Last Command, and capitalism in the greatest of these, The Last Laugh.

But anyone can tell a glum tale. Murnau dazzles us with a sense of kinetic delight and experimentation so giddy, it's almost at odds with the serious character study, but really every detail and scene combines satirical character observation with compassion and pathos. There are several famous moments of subjectivity, beginning with the remarkable opening tracking shot that announces the film's style of "the unchained camera". We travel down a glass elevator and then across the spacious lobby (the camera on a bicycle) to the revolving door. At least that's how I remembered it, until this restoration made it clear that two separate shots are used, and the making-of questions the oft-repeated claim about the bicycle.

Then there's the famous moment of expressionism when the skyscrapers loom oppressively over our hapless hero, and the equally celebrated scene where cameraman Karl Freund (later of I Love Lucy fame) strapped on the camera and staggered about the room to convey inebriation. That's part of a tour-de-force sequence in which our man gets drunk, has a fantastic dream and then slowly wears off his hangover.

Then there's the famous stunt of telling the story as "pure cinema" without title cards, or virtually without them. Ironically, the German version in general release did add a lot of unnecessary title cards for reasons of convention.

Such things delight film buffs more than the alleged realism of the story, but what really knocked me for a loop on that long-ago day when I sat through a tattered, ragged print in a college library with bulky headphones over my ears to hear the tinny music, what really produced an epiphany was the aesthetic slap in the face by the ending, or two endings.

The movie fades out on a hopeless note. Then, abruptly, a title card informs us that while this is really the true ending, the author has taken pity on the doorman and provided an unlikely ending. Then we cut to an astonishing montage of glamorous people laughing as they read a headline about how the doorman has become a millionaire by an extraordinary turn of events. Huzzah! By its very absurdity, this lengthy final sequence becomes a further indictment of society, both for the values of wealth and for its failure to live up to such possibilities. This is the "last laugh" of the American title, which chooses to emphasize this false ending. (There was already an American film called The Last Man.)

I saw this movie shortly after Blue Velvet, and the realization that Murnau expected his audience to "get" a phony happy ending, 60 years before David Lynch's postmodernism, left me fairly pole-axed. This ending is so avant-garde, some people still haven't caught up with it. The notion that the filmmakers would mock the idea of a happy ending for Brechtian purposes is still something that can't be grasped by those who are apparently willing to swallow the idea that a front office somewhere that could meddle with a movie's ending would permit the same movie to call attention to the fact.

It takes only a moment's reflection to realize that the ending is part of the film's conception and indeed was part of Carl Mayer's screenplay. (The making-of says the idea was added at Jannings' suggestion.) Yet it's not unusual, even today, to read critical discussions that take the film's assertions about the changed ending at face value and regard it as a flaw, a genuine example of commercial interests compromising an artist's vision.

The 2003 restoration on Kino's two-disc reissue includes a making-of and an unrestored copy of the export version they released previously. The two versions have different scores, but there are deeper differences. The restored image is so uncannily sharp, your jaw may drop at the textures on the walls, the reflections in the glass, and the amazing perspective on the massive street set (whose secrets are revealed in the making-of). It's like you're seeing a different movie, and you literally are.

Many shots are different because the film was shot with two cameras in order to compile three different negatives: the domestic German version, the general export version, and an American version. In restoring the German version from various prints, it was necessary to establish the separate versions, and we can see how details change from one version to the next. A striking example is the scene where the doorman reads a letter explaining his demotion. In the German version, it's a festival of subjective effects, while the previous Kino print (cobbled from the American and export versions) alters or truncates some of this material.

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