(The Last Laugh)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production: Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft (UFA); black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 73 minutes; length: 2,036 meters, 8 reels. Released 23 December 1924, Berlin. Filmed 1924 in UFA studios.
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, under the supervision of Erich Pommer; photography: Karl Freund; production designers: Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig; accompanying musical score: Guiseppe Becce.
Cast: Emil Jannings ( Doorman ); Maly Delschaft ( His daughter ); Max Hiller ( Her fiancé ); Emilie Kurtz ( His aunt ); Hans Unterkircher ( Manager ); Olaf Storm ( Young hotel resident ); Hermann Valentin ( Hotel resident ); Emmy Wyda ( Thin neighbor ); Georg John ( Night watchman ).
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Had scenarist Carl Mayer not quarrelled with director Lupu Pick, his collaborator on two previous films, Scherben and Sylvester , Der letzte Mann would undoubtedly have been more like its Kammerspeil (literally "chamber play") predecessors. In these two films Mayer and Pick had abandoned the Expressionist concern for subjective vision and instead dealt with the intimate details of petit bourgeois existence. Mayer and Pick together create a Stimmung or "mood" of inevitable domestic tragedy brought on by the workings of instinct, a force so natural and all-conquering that it cannot even be expressed in language (hence, in part, the films' lack of inter-titles). This treatment of the workings of obsession, of course, suggests a rapprochement between the psychologism of Caligari and the Zolaesque determinism suitable for presenting a social critique. In fact, it is often noted that the Kammespielfilme as a group can be viewed as continuing the Expressionist examination of disturbed minds and emotions within settings and with characters that are essentially realistic. In the case of Pick's two efforts with Mayer, this realism even takes on socio-political overtones, developed by the contrast between the miseries of lower-middle class existence and the easy, but unattainable life of the rich.
Even with F. W. Murnau as director, Der letzte Mann has much in common with Mayer's two previous films, which together form a triptych. Once again, the narrative deals with the hardships suffered by the petit bourgeoisie. The central character is a hotel doorman who, as such, must serve the rich, but is still admired by his fellow tenement dwellers because of the status implied by his ornate uniform. Removed from his post because of old age, the doorman cannot adjust to his new position as lavatory attendant. His desperate struggle to retain his former standing in the neighborhood eventually fails, and he becomes an object of ridicule and shame. The doorman's decline takes on a larger socio-political significance as he seems the only mediator between life in the slums and in the luxury hotel. The film's ending, however, undercuts this sharp critique of lower-middle-classed disenchantment, symbolized, in a specifically German fashion, by the loss of the uniform. When the doorman is reduced to utter abjectness, the film's only inter-title declares that, although in the real world he would have no chance, the filmmakers will have mercy on him. What follows defies the film's carefully developed vraisemblance . The doorman becomes the beneficiary of an eccentric American millionaire who, having willed his fortune to the "last man" to serve him, had died in the hotel lavatory. The film ends with the doorman and his partner, the night watchman, enjoying a suitably vulgar and ostentatious dinner in the hotel dining room and leaving for parts unknown in a huge limousine. The carnival celebration of Der letzte Mann's conclusion finds no equivalent in the unrelieved grimness of the earlier Kammerspielfilme .
The differences between Der letzte Mann and its predecessors, however, are not simply those of narrative construction. Scherbern and Sylvester attained only limited critical and commercial success, while Der letzte Mann was hailed as a masterpiece both in Germany and abroad. It became one of the most important films to emerge from Weimar Germany and was influential in Hollywood, where it aroused an enthusiasm for German films and filmmakers that was to last for many years. Much of the acclaim centered around the cinematic techniques devised by Mayer, Murnau, and the cameraman Karl Freund to present the narrative.
Murnau often receives full credit for inventing the "unchained camera" that explores both the inner and outer worlds of Der letzte Mann , but the innovations resulted from collaborative effort. Murnau, more than Pick, was able to realize Mayer's ideas about dynamic and flexible point of view; his previous work, particularly in Nosferatu , reveals an expert handling of camera placement and angles. Griffith may have invented both tracking movements and point-of-view editing, but these elements of film grammar are refined and extended in Der letzte Mann . In the famous drunk scene, the camera records the doorman's distorted perceptions, an effect Freund achieved by strapping the camera to his chest and staggering about the set. In the dream sequence that follows, Murnau suggests an even more subjective experience, the distortions imposed by the unconscious upon conscious concerns; here the Expressionist influence is strongest and is achieved largely through special effects, not, as in Caligari , through set design.
This linkage between the camera and the doorman's perceptions or feelings is not sustained. Several sequences suggest the camera's independence from both narrative and character. In the opening sequence, a long travelling shot, entirely unmotivated, takes the spectator down the hotel elevator, through the lobby, and out the revolving door that serves as symbol of fate. Freund achieved this effect by mounting the camera on a bicycle. Later, at a crucial moment in the story, the camera positions itself outside a glass wall and, by means of a discreet dissolve, gradually moves into the room to record the interview between the doorman and the manager. When the doorman is later accused of slackness by an irate customer, the camera refuses to follow the manager down to the lavatory. In these sequences and others, the camera calls attention to itself rather than presenting the narrative through the doorman's experience. This reflexivity finds its culmination in the artificiality of the film's conclusion.
Der letzte Mann is noteworthy not simply because it inaugurated the use of subjective camera, but because it revealed the potentially complex relationship between camera and narrative. If its elaborate and virtuoso production exceeds the intimate atmosphere of Kammerspielfilme , lending the doorman's simple story a grandiosity it can hardly sustain, it is because Murnau, Mayer and Freund discovered storytelling techniques that could barely be contained by the limitations of that genre.
—R. Barton Palmer