Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Last Laugh (1924) Review

The Last Laugh 1924 poster
Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings, Olaf Storm
Genre: Kammerspiel, Drama

The Last Laugh, directed by F.W. Murnau, is perhaps the finest example (or at least most popular example) of the short-lived, though extraordinary, Kammerspiel genre (Chamber-Drama), a film movement that arose in 1920s Germany and never lasted much outside of the decade. 

A long-time doorman for a famous hotel (Emil Jannings) is demoted to washroom duty when he is deemed too old to maintain the hotel's image. Out of shame he tries to hide his new job position from his friends and family but he is eventually found out. His friends and family are disappointed with him and ridicule him. Can the poor hotel worker find happiness again?

It's a simple story but a nice one. Perhaps also a slightly unbelievable story at that, with even director F.W. Murnau himself calling it absurd. The film was written by famed German screenwriter Carl Mayer who also wrote other German classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire, Tartuffe, and F.W. Murnau's later Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. If the story tells us anything it's that the uniform is, unfortunately, king; something Germans perhaps know better than anyone. 

With Carl Mayer as writer, F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) directing, Emil Jannings playing the lead role, and also legendary within the world of German film Karl Freund as cinematographer, The Last Laugh seems as if it has the perfect recipe for greatness, or at least all the best chefs. 

On the production of The Last Laugh Murnau said "All our efforts must be directed towards abstracting everything that isn't the true domain of the cinema. Everything that is trivial and acquired from other sources, all the tricks, devices and cliches inherited from the stage and from books." And if that was his goal then I'd say he certainly achieved it. Michael Carne later said about The Last Laugh "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." The Last Laugh certainly achieved that and if that isn't one of the main traits that make film an art form than I don't know what is. 

The Last Laugh 1924 hotel

In early cinema film movement was often overlooked and often absent from many films. The Last Laugh is undoubtedly the first to show the power camera movement and positioning can have. It made something so technical into something incredibly artistic and expressive. The Last Laugh is as important to film history as Citizen Kane is. Not only are there panning shots, there's tracking shots, crane shots, rising shots, swooping shots; it's to no surprise that The Last Laugh is credited as the inventor and pioneer of the Unchained Camera Technique; something that has become so common in film today. 

The extraordinary camera work allowed The Last Laugh to achieve something else: the nearly complete absent of intertitles, something films relied on heavily at the time. It wasn't the first film to do this (Shattered in 1921, Warning Shadows in 1923, and New Year's Eve in 1924 all did the same thing before) but it arguably did it the best. The camera did all the talking. In The Last Laugh there is only one intertitle, though it doesn't represent dialogue, and it is quite a powerful intertitle (perhaps even amplified in contrast to the film's mostly absence of them). 

The Last Laugh 1924 intertitle

The Last Laugh is, without doubt, a very beautiful and visually pleasing film indeed. Both technically and artistically. Not to mention a very important entry in the history and development of cinema. 

Emil Jannings, one of my favorite actors of the time, does a great job here and plays the part perfectly. 

The Last Laugh 1924 Emil Jannings

However, despite my much praise, The Last Laugh is, to me, not the perfect film. Its contributions somewhat outweigh its own qualities. The plot is a bit too simple and dull for me (something that many chamber dramas fall victim to), and the ending (though presented in a self-aware and funny way) seems a bit too convenient and unfascinating. It's not that the film is necessarily dated--it's still very enjoyable and beautiful to watch--it's just many of the things that make it so fascinating have become commonplace in film, as such its appeal dwindles a bit. Which makes it a bit more enjoyable for its historical significance rather than anything else. 

The Last Laugh 1924 washroom

The Last Laugh is both a highly important film and a highly enjoyable one. A must watch for students of film or fans of Murnau (though I wouldn't call it his best film, perhaps his most important one), Mayer, Freund, or Jannings. A great example in visual storytelling. Recommended. 

4/5 stars

Purchase The Last Laugh on Amazon: DVD - Stream - Murnau DVD Collection

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