Along with Sunrise, The Last Laugh is a fine example of the genius of FW Murnau. That it remains less renowned than his Hollywood debut is something of a disservice to his finest UFA production. Eureka’s release of the film on DVD is certainly likely to win it a new audience, whilst those already familiar with the film may be surprised by the restored version, which has gone some way to presenting the cut that Murnau originally envisioned.
The film is beguilingly simple. Emil Jannings plays an elderly hotel doorman who is respected by all in the working-class district where he lives, not-so-much for his good nature than for the resplendent uniform he dons every day. He is the link between those who have little and the wealthy guests he ushers in and out of the hotel. When he is demoted to cleaning the hotel washroom, he fears he will lose his position of respect and steals the uniform, dressing up in it to return home every night. When a neighbour discovers his subterfuge he is transformed into a laughing stock, bringing shame to his recently wed niece and leaving him a lonely, despondent old man.
In essence, The Last Laugh is a critique of the almost fetishistic obsession with the uniform in early 20th Century Germany. It was the symbol of power that drove millions of men to their deaths in the First World War and resulted in the crippling of a once strong nation. Moreover, Murnau acknowledges that as the century progresses, the nature of the uniform has changed, from the once powerful militaristic look, to the less flamboyant, but no less sinister business suit. Both are representative of an elite that has only its own interests in mind.
Even by the high standards of UFA, The Last Laugh was a remarkable achievement, harnessing the best of the studio’s technical and creative resources. Overseeing the film was Eric Pommer, the studio’s most successful producer. The script was written by Carl Mayer, who penned The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Karl Freund was principal cinematographer, working closely with Murnau on the numerous innovations used during the shoot. Even the production designer, Edward G. Ulmer, was a unique talent, as proven by Detour, which he directed in 1945. As the insightful documentary accompanying the film shows, Murnau had every intention of creating a film that would be a new benchmark in cinematic innovation. From the use of miniatures to denote a greater depth of field than the set he was filming on could accommodate, to edgy, hand-held shots and playing with lenses – in one shot going so far as to have someone holding a lens in front of the camera, with its rim frequently in view – The Last Laugh remains a radical experience even today.
Even the narrative challenges convention. Unlike most silent cinema, which required the use of inter-titles to tell the story, The Last Laugh employs a complex mise-en-scene to progress the narrative. The only inter-titles appear at the start and end, the latter before an epilogue that emphasises what a pitiful future lies in store for the old man. The epilogue also mocks cinema’s employment of a feel-good ending by offering an implausible outcome. As with every other aspect of the film, it emphasises the complexity of Murnau’s work and the sophistication of one of silent cinema’s greatest directors.