‘The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema… dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms’ – Alfred Hitchcock.
Visual storytelling remained first priority, but countless creatives responsible for the finest silent films incorporated title cards of dialogue for exposition, dramatic purposes or comedic endeavours. Murnau, of Nosferatu acclaim, and skilful screenwriter Carl Mayer, scribe of horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari, join creative forces for The Last Laugh – a completely silent picture.
Throughout the entirety of The Last Laugh, not a single dialogue card is used. This accomplishment is not due to an oversimplification of plot or melodramatic acting, but a collaboration of masters. The complimentary abilities of Murnau’s direction, Jannings’ acting, Mayer’s writing and Freund’s cinematography, allow The Last Laugh to remain one of the greatest dramatic films and a masterclass in visual storytelling. The Last Laugh depicts an ageing Hotel Doorman (Emil Jannings) who suffers the scorn of family and friends as he is humiliatingly demoted to a bathroom attendant.
Losing one lowly job for another hardly seems a firm basis for great drama, but Mayer’s writing perfectly captures the destructive capacity of pride. Emil Jannings plays the tragic hero harbouring a dramatic fault of excessive pride which leads to an ultimate downfall in pursuit of diminishing respect. Mayer ingeniously generates sympathy for his hero by situating a man who fancies himself as a figure of great importance in humble surroundings. Jannings utterly embodies the role of the Doorman adoring his position and immediately conveys internal essence – attentively standing bolt upright, a grand and wide man with a wider smile smothered in an impressive moustache continuously preened. Jannings sways with self-importance but absorbs sympathy for his delightfully proud character because of his ignoble situation.
Away from the luxury of the Hotel Atlantic, our hero lives in a poor area but is a figure of adoration and great importance within this microcosm. The pristine and opulent long coat decorated with shining golden buttons distinguishes him as a symbol of the greats he rubs elbows with, even if it is only when escorting them to a taxi in the rain. Mayer unearths visual moments to display the admiration for Jannings, women quickly shoo away dust as he passes, children run to receive sweets from the kindly gentlemen and each resident bows to his salutes.
Jannings demonstrates his phenomenal talent as the situation turns dire. The Doorman is demoted after displaying his dwindling strength. The uniform is removed and a feeble man stands before us. In the course of the narrative, Jannings morphs into a broken shell quickly losing the battle with his inner demons. It is a poignant and heartbreaking tragedy as Jannings desperately attempts to hold onto a shred of dignity. Jannings requires no dialogue to convey his soul, his darkening eyes gaze absorb us as he gazes into a happier past.
In true German Expressionistic style, Murnau warps the world around the disintegrating hero, but in a subtle manner projecting with his subconscious through alternative camera angles. Classic devices are still used, the incomprehensibly huge Hotel Atlantic threateningly looms, superimpositions of gossiping and laughing neighbours populate the screen and shadows speak volumes for the Doorman’s soul. However, the invention of the dolly shot ingeniously projects the inner turmoil of the character in fresh light.
The Dolly Shot, which would be key to some of cinema’s most infamous scenes in classics like Boogie Nights, Touch of Evil and Goodfellas, had it’s proud beginning in The Last Laugh. Using wheelchairs as basic tracks, Murnau and Karl Freund, the cinematographer behind sic-fi nightmare Metropolis and savage war epic All Quiet On The Western Front, create a unique and distinctive visual style. Murnau uses Dolly Shots as both an exciting new plaything and a sophisticated tool. Often it represents the inner workings of Jannings as it dreamily floats through the bustling Hotel Atlantic, or relentlessly pursues our hero amidst jeering neighbours. Other times, Murnau plainly enjoys exercising his invention, allowing the camera to be literally blown away by a trumpeter or circle cheering crowds in a startling hand held dream sequence. It is a refreshingly new way of seeing.
The final act is intriguing. Murnau and Mayer wished for the film to end with the Doorman’s death but instead tacked on a happy ending after a struggle with studios. The reaction to this ending will divide according to taste. The Last Laugh, a new title after the original The Last Man was dropped, may belong to Mayer and Murna who apologise in a small title card before displaying the finale. There are happy endings and then there is The Last Laugh, sudden riches befall the hero in a ridiculous manner, even extras laugh as they read the newspaper explanation. The ending is infused with a cynicism which pushes the act into joke territory. In a personal opinion, I enjoyed it. I am not one for riding off into the sunset, yet the lightness is so at odds with the prior narrative it is almost a relief.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, Murnau’s The Last Laugh may do one better, it connects so deeply it may last a thousand years.
A drunken dream. Several men try to lift a suitcase but cannot manage. The impeccably clean cut Doorman pushes them aside and lifts it with one hand. He playfully juggles the bag to a cheering crowd in a dizzying handheld sequence. Poignant for such simple desires, mesmerising for such masterful storytelling.