The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2017. First up for January is FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh.
I feel as if I always have a tendency to visit Germany first in my Blindspot cinematic travelling. This year, I decided to look at another classic of German silent film: The Last Laugh. I actually saw a clip of this in one of my film classes many years ago and always wanted to see the whole thing. Well, now I finally have and I’m almost surprised by its classification as German Expressionism. Though the whole thing is impeccably crafted, and as advertised in my class, almost totally without relying on intertitles, it doesn’t really seem to typify that movement to me.
Emil Jannings plays an aging doorman at a fancy hotel. What may be seen as a menial job is a great source of pride and the bedrock of his identity. At the start of the film, we see him take a bit of a rest after struggling to life a heavy piece of luggage. Unfortunately, so does a supervisor, and after he walks into work the next morning, in his grand uniform, straight-backed and proud, he is demoted to the roll of washroom attendant. This immediately erodes all of his confidence, that he can so easily be stripped of his job because he showed one moment of minimal weakness. We see how his life continues to spiral downwards, until Murnau as the director gives him the happy ending that he deserves.
As I said at the top, this film has almost no intertitles, despite being a feature length story dealing with some strong emotions and character development. Nothing that happens in this movie is so complex (except maybe the seemingly universal stigma that is applied to washroom attendants) that it needs words to be explained, but nevertheless, the film’s commitment to telling the story visually is impressive. This most obviously manifests itself in the glimpses we get into the doorman’s state of mind, laughing faces of his neighbors filling the screen and his imagining of the hotel where he works falling on him are just a few examples. I suppose this is a bit of expressionism here, with the building falling on him, as the environment around him reflects his inner feelings.
The ability to tell the story visually also depends a lot on Jannings’ performance and body language. The way he carries himself in his uniform and out of it are totally different. As a doorman, he has total confidence and control over his surroundings, his family looks up to him, and he is open and seemingly larger than life with other people. We see a touching scene where he helps a kid getting bullied and gives them a piece of candy. After he is demoted, he visibly shrinks and seems to age about fifty years in the course of one second. He’s always stooped over, and he face holds no gaiety or joy. It’s heartbreaking to see such a man struck down. Ironically, his one sign of aging results in him being demoted, which ages him much more dramatically and destructively than the first instance of weakness betrayed. You can imagine him working as a doorman and taking short breaks from lifting heavy luggage if his bosses don’t happen to notice for another ten years, at least.
I also think Jannings’ performance is the best argument for this film as piece of German Expressionism. After he is demoted, he hold himself in that stooped over way that really no person normally would. You don’t see a lot of exaggerated angles and weird shapes in the sets, which I normally associate with German Expressionism. You do get this weird angularity in the way Jannings move around, but it only appears in his performance when he’s in demotion mode. In terms of the sets, what you see is more how overpowering the environment is, even though in actual design it looks fairly ordinary. The buildings seem to be extra tall, leading into that shot where the hotel seems to be crushing the doorman.
The one use of an intertitle (besides the doorman getting a letter early in the film) is pretty powerful. Murnau, in print, tells you he’s going to give the doorman a false, but happy, ending. What happens after Murnau announces this is totally improbable, but that’s part of its charm. It shows that cinema and stories can help sustain you through adverse events, even if the pleasure it offers is not real. Murnau could have left out the intertitle explaining what he was doing, but putting it in make it even more clear that what happens next is false. The “true story” relied entirely on visuals, but once titles are introduced you know the story becomes false.
I really liked The Last Laugh. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the story a bit, but I when I was watching the film I really connected to the doorman’s fall from grace and loss of dignity. I get that the happy ending was tacked one, but I think that it an also be seen as an act of compassion from the filmmaker. The Last Laugh put human feeling right at the center of the film, and for that, I really appreciated it.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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