The Last Laugh (Masters of Cinema) DVD
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Directed by F.W. Murnau
Produced in 1924
Main Language - Silent
With cinematography by Karl Freund, a virtuoso performance by Emil Jannings and innovative direction from F W Murnau, this tale of an eminent doorman whose world crumbles when he is demoted to lavatory attendant is one of the finest artistic triumphs of the silent era.
It is a landmark work on a number of fronts. Firstly, it introduced a method of purely visual storytelling in which all intertitles and dialogue were jettisoned, setting the stage for a seamless interaction between film-world and viewer. Secondly, it put to use a panoply of technical innovations that continue to point distinct ways forward for cinematic expression nearly a century later. It guides the silent cinema's melodramatic brio to its lowest abject abyss — before disposing of the tragic arc altogether. The lesson in all this? That a film can be anything it wants to be.
Murnau's film depicts the tale of an elderly hotel doorman (played by the inimitable Emil Jannings) whose superiors have come to deem his station as transitory as the revolving doors through which he has ushered guests in and out, day upon day, decade after decade. Reduced to polishing tiles beneath a sink in the gents' lavatory and towelling the hands of Berlin's most vulgar barons, the doorman soon uncovers the ironical underside of old-world hospitality. And then — one day — his fate suddenly changes...
Der Letzte Mann (also known as The Last Laugh, although its original title translates to 'The Last Man') inaugurated a new era of mobile camera expression whose handheld aesthetic and sheer plastic fervour predated the various 'New Wave' movements of the 1960s and beyond. As the watershed entry in Murnau's work, its influence can be detected in such later masterpieces as Faust, Sunrise, and Tabu — and in the films of the same Hollywood dream-factory that would offer him a contract shortly after Der Letzte Mann's release.
Publisher: Eureka / Masters of Cinema
Length: 90 mins
Format: DVD B&W
Released: 21st January 2008
Cat No: EKA40262
Subtitles: English, German
- New, progressive encoding of the recent, magnificent film restoration
- Making-of documentary by Murnau expert Luciano Berriatúa [41:00]
- New and improved optional English subtitles (original German intertitles)
- Lavishly illustrated 36-page booklet with writing by film scholars R. Dixon Smith, Tony Rayns, and Lotte H. Eisner — and more!
by Anon on 21st January 2004
Few films emanate such power as does The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann), one of cinema's great tragedies. The story is simple and told without inter-titles: when an agei... Read on
Few films emanate such power as does The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann), one of cinema's great tragedies. The story is simple and told without inter-titles: when an ageing hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) is stripped of his uniform and suddenly demoted to become a toilet attendant in a bustling inner-city hotel, his world collapses. The daily walk to his apartment, which had once filled him with great pride, now becomes one of terror and oppression as he tries to hide from the leering faces of the imposing tenement buildings in which he lives. Lonely and haunted, his happiness destroyed, the doorman is left spiritually broken and helped only by a nightwatchman as the crushing agonies take their toll. Murnau creates a film out of very little, but under his direction and through Jannings' colossal performance, no words are needed as it soars beyond anything imaginable. This film is one of the giants of world cinema.
by Graeme Hobbs on 23rd December 2003
Those who have seen the restored version of Murnau’s Sunrise will know just how good silent cinema can be when released in a form that does justice to the integrity of... Read on
Those who have seen the restored version of Murnau’s Sunrise will know just how good silent cinema can be when released in a form that does justice to the integrity of the original film. Likewise, The Last Laugh, here in a restored and beautifully clear new print is a revelation.
The story of The Last Laugh (a prior film by the name of The Last Man in America precluded the use of that name there), about the very human descent of a doorman after his demotion, is based on the vicisstudes of fortune. The first shots in the film prefigure the doorman’s fate as we first descend in a lift and then seamlessly move across the bustling lobby towards the revolving door. It is an opening that also introduces us to the innovative and fluid ‘unchained camera’ of Karl Freund that is such a notable feature throughout the film.
The film was also conceived a a satire on the power of uniforms and the doorman’s cloak was specially commissioned to resemble military attire – the buttons having an especially alluring gleam.
Jannings as the bluff doorman hams it up to incredible effect with his whole being put into the service of his art. Hardly off screen for the duration of the film it is difficult to take your eyes from him, such is his presence (a presence certainly aided by his two hours of make-up each day). He literally deflates as we watch, his proud bearing increasingly reduced to a wretched skulk. After his demotion he is sunk in shadow and mocked by unavoidable reflections.
The film is meticulously constructed throughout, with the making-of documentary revealing the thorough preparation behind the shoot. It also gives examples of the incredible lengths Murnau went to in order to realise his vision of the cityscapes in the film with false perspectives and scaled-down models of cars and cut-outs populating their backgrounds. They are a triumph, blending seamlessly with the action.
The artificiality of the happy ending in The Last Laugh (which was the film that brought Murnau to the notice of Hollywood), is integral to the film’s construction and we are left with the tension of this artificiality against the more believable but rather more depressing first ending ending three-quarters of the way through. When Murnau finally made it to America and all the resources of the Fox studios were put at his disposal, it may well have been this unresolved tension that led him to make the glorious film of reconciliation that is Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans.
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