Murnau’s “The Last Laugh”

I have a friend who says that he “hates” silent films. I doubt this will dissuade him.

F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is one the most famous of silent films. Its plot could hardly be simpler: an elderly doorman of a luxury hotel, gets demoted to washroom attendant.  His self-esteem and social standing collapse and he ends up in an almost catatonic state.  Of course it’s really not that simple–but almost.

When we first see our unnamed protagonist, he is presiding over the busy entrance of the “Atlantic” hotel in his greatcoat and peaked cap all festooned with gold braid, piping and brass buttons. He is hailing cabs, grandly escorting hotel guests and ordering about the bell boy staff in a pouring rainstorm all the while giving little military salutes. After wrestling alone with a large steamer trunk, he is spotted by the assistant manager resting a moment drinking a toddy brought to him by a bell boy. Within the first few minutes Murnau sets up his main character and the inciting moment that will lead to his downfall.

This is a proud man, absurdly proud, and it is all based on his job and the uniform he wears performing it. This is where he gets his self-esteem and sense of social standing.  As he strides home, or to work, he is greeted with respectful deference and admiration from the residents of the tenement neighborhood where he lives. They stand back and admire as he walks with a purpose, returning their greeting with a smile and his little salute. When he is then demoted and stripped of his uniform he is instantly transformed. No longer does he stands up straight. Now he cowers. No longer commanding of respect, he is downcast, his eyes either dead or furtive, afraid someone will spy him without his armor.  He steals back the uniform to wear to and from home.  Even though he tries to keep up appearances, his whole demeanor disintegrates into a wobbly fear of being found out–and of course, he is found out. The effect is devastating ot the old man.  The whole of his neighborhood openly and gleefully mocks him. His family acts with embarrassed shame, practically shunning him. He is alone.

Before the fall . . .


What makes The Last Laugh great is not its plot line of course but the style and craft Murnau, his scenarist Carl Mayer, cinematographer Karl Freund, production designer Edgar G. Ulmer, and what the various other designers and cameramen bring to this piece.  The Last Laughis a film that uses no inter-titles to tell its story, just camera and performance–the towering performance of Emil Jannings.  Aside from the opening introductory title card and a title card leading to the “epilogue” there are no breaks in the visual storytelling. There are a few “internal graphics” that convey important information; but those are part of the internal visual story, not breaks to explain or quote dialogue. The camera was taken off its sticks and strapped to the chest of the cameraman, dollied around in a wheelchair, attached to a teeter totter along with other techniques to create unique,, subjective look of the film.

Murnau, Freund & Jannings filming

Murnau and Mayer were interested in the uniform, specifically the military uniform and how it played such a large role in society and the then view of society on the individual. Realistically the doorman was no higher than the wash room attendant and was probably not paid any more. But this is not a realistic film and that is not the point the makers wish to convey.

The Last Laugh was originally titled Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) in Germany and was supposed to end with our hero deposed and alone in the wash room.

Alone & isolated, the supposed ending . . .

“Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

I wrote “supposed” above because that is not how the story ends. Whether Murnau changed his mind or had it changed for him is not entirely clear; but an epilogue was added–a rather fantastic epilogue.  In a newspaper clipping we read that an American millionaire died in the wash room of the Atlantic Hotel and left his entire fortune to the only one with him at the time–the lowly washroom attendant. Never mind the logistics of these happening, it is of no matter. Again, it is the effect. There are plenty who do not like the added ending. I am not one of them. Yes, it is fantastic. And yes, it changes entirely the feeling of the downer ending. (And it goes on too long, by half.) But it makes a very valid point in it’s turnaround–the power and the prestige is not in the uniform; it is in the M O N E Y, the money.   People who would not have given him a second thought are now at his beck & call.

Who’s got the money, honey?

I think, or choose think, that is how Muranu saw it.

The Kino DVD in the Murnau set (also available separately) is well worth seeking out. Maybe someday on blu-ray. See it if you can. Very highly recommended.