The story is simple: in the Germany of the 1920s, a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) takes pride in his job and the status it gives him in his working-class neighborhood. When he is demoted because of age and becomes a bathroom attendant, his self-respect is destroyed, and he sinks into depression until a surprising reversal of fortune. Such an interior psychological study might not seem like the raw material of spectacle, but in the hands of director F.W. Murnau and his frequent collaborator, Karl Freund, ASC, it became the basis for a landmark in the art of cinematography.
The Last Laugh remains, more than 80 years after its release, a visual stunner with intricately designed sets and camera movements as elaborate as anything in the present-day work of Brian DePalma or Martin Scorsese (whose representation of drunkenness in Mean Streets echoes an effect pioneered by Murnau and Freund). Told virtually without intertitles (There are fewer than half a dozen shots of text, and when it is shown, it is incorporated into the story via newspaper articles and letters.), The Last Laugh represented a quantum leap forward in the art of cinematic storytelling.
Superficially, the film is simply an intimate character study, which is one of the reasons it has transcended time and culture to become an internationally beloved classic. Yet for Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer, the story was also an antimilitaristic metaphor designed to mock the importance given to ritual and uniforms. After Jannings’ character is stripped of his position, he steals his old uniform each night and returns it before work the next day because wearing the doorman’s outfit is the only thing that gives him a sense of dignity. The film subtly criticizes this point of view and links it visually to a theme of militarism by using buttons and braids that resemble those on a soldier’s uniform on Jannings’ coat.
Beyond the level of social commentary, The Last Laugh also expands the scope of its premise through an ambitious approach to framing in which a constantly moving camera conveys Jannings’ tumultuous inner feelings. The camera had moved before The Last Laugh, of course, but rarely as often or as beautifully; in an early variation on the Steadicam, Freund strapped his lightweight Stachow camera to his chest and followed the actors in long, elegant takes. His method of encouraging audience identification by allowing the viewer to move with the characters is part of film grammar now, but in 1924, it was revolutionary, as were some of the rigs the crew built to give the camera the apparent ability to fly through the air following the “sound” of a trumpet in one scene — a remarkable effect for a silent film. The moving camera also allowed Freund to inject a sense of palpable reality into the film, showing the interrelatedness of art directors Walter Röhrig and Robert Herlth’s massive sets. The entire film was shot in a studio, but the long takes provide an impression of vast practical locations, and Freund’s careful lighting cloaks the many tricks (forced perspective, miniatures, cardboard cut-out extras, etc.) used to create the illusion of scale and depth.
Three separate negatives were exposed and edited for The Last Laugh; for each scene, different takes were used for German, American and international export versions. In general, the best takes were used for the German edition, with slower or slightly flawed takes relegated to the prints for foreign audiences (The international version was shown in Spain, Italy and other countries.). The Germans also experienced the most extreme manifestations of Freund’s experiments; set pieces such as an hallucinatory dream sequence, in which Freund willfully distorted the image are far more conventional in the exported prints.
Kino’s two-disc special edition of The Last Laugh contains two incarnations of the film, the German and international versions. The restored German cut is luminous, with razor-sharp clarity and a much wider tonal range than what was featured on Kino’s previous DVD and VHS copies of the film. Those editions featured the international print that is included here on Disc 2; unlike the German version, it has not been restored, and the quality of both the print and the transfer itself is markedly inferior.
The international cut’s interest is primarily academic, in any case, since the German one represents the fullest realization of Murnau and Freund’s vision. Both versions contain terrific musical accompaniment: a new performance of Giuseppe Becce’s original 1924 score in 5.1 surround on the German print and a more subtle 1993 composition by Timothy Brock presented in 2.0 stereo on the international edition.
The DVD also includes an excellent 40-minute making-of documentary that contains fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of The Last Laugh, as well as comparisons among the three-release versions and an explanation of the restoration work done on the picture in 2003. The featurette is a remarkable piece of film history and visual analysis that illuminates Freund and Murnau’s methods in detail, with dozens of revealing production stills. (A few additional photos and artwork can be found in an image gallery elsewhere on the DVD.) Given the filmmakers’ innovation, a case could be made for The Last Laugh being one of the most influential of all silent films, and there is no better way to see it at home than with this DVD.