The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Following the lead of Grune’s The Street (1923), F. W. Murnau discarded title-inserts to create an uninterrupted flow of images in The Last Laugh. (The German title actually translates as The Last Man.) But, for this study of a demoted hotel employee, Murnau came up with originality of his own that widened the expressive vocabulary of film. His camera moved. A lot. And with purpose, for the film’s continuously moving shots—tracking shots—are ironic counterpoint to the toppled worker’s disintegrated self-esteem.
Nevertheless, The Last Laugh isn’t quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests. While Murnau captures every nuance of his protagonist’s fall from elegantly dressed doorman, a position of visible élan, to washroom attendant, he eschews every opportunity for probing analysis. Murnau skips by any consideration of the warped basis for the man’s self-image. Like his protagonist, Murnau is fixated on the shiny-buttoned uniform. Why should status be determined by what a person’s job is? The hollowness of such a yardstick could be connected to the capriciousness of the demotion. In some larger view that Murnau doesn’t take, there may be food for thought about how employers jerk around employees, attempting to decide even their souls for them.
That said, the film fascinates, not only because of its use of camera, but also because of the towering performance that Emil Jannings gives in the lead role. The film’s worldwide success brought both Murnau and Jannings to Hollywood, with Jannings winning the first best actor Oscar (for Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 The Last Command) before returning to Germany to follow his Nazi heart.
The tacked-on happy ending, in which the crushed employee becomes rich: this has never bothered me. Indeed, it is thematically consistent, because yet again the man’s fortunes are out of his control.
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