F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh is an odd film, one that defies film conventions of plot, characterization, value judgment which still can be seen throughout the cinema. Der letzte Mann, the German title, can also be translated as The Last Man, with the connotation of "the least of men." To examine a man described with such an appellation is a fascinating experiment. And even more than most films with title characters, Der letzte Mann concentrates completely on its old doorman. There are perhaps four or five scenes which do not include his physical presence, and these are all set-ups for his reactions to them. The audience is truly invited to get inside the psyche of this hotel porter, almost to the exclusion of other characters or the milieu of his city or home life.
The doorman, played masterfully by Emil Jannings, is a pathetic yet noble character who is, ironically, fired for doing his job too well. He heroically moves a heavy trunk without any assistance, assistance he normally has, then stops for a short break. Only the break is noticed by the hotel manager, who demotes the doorman to restroom attendant, stripping him of his identity and station in life.
Previously, we have seen the effect his uniform has had on the doorman. Respected, at least to his face, by his friends, family, and neighbors, he moves with pride and a puffed-out chest down the streets where he lives. We see him salute passersby, who seem as delighted by his joviality as he is. He is dignified and correct, yet tender, stopping to prevent the other little children from teasing another child, brushing the child off and giving it some candy before passing on. Jannings plays all of the doorman with gusto and big, robust movements which never go overboard.
So the firing, with its repossession of the doorman's uniform, hits hard (though perhaps harder than it should for a man who has acted so dignified before; this is quibbling). Besides the effect of the firing on the man himself, the neighbors begin to gossip and make fun of the doorman and his family, finally driving the doorman's new son-in-law to kick him out of the house. Although this is the most unbelievable part of the film, it does have some validity and moves the story to its intended, and necessary, destination.
The camera effects, ones which might be criticized in a film reaching for realism, actually add to the realism here. Effects such as seeing things from the doorman's point of view, even when he is drunk or confused, actually recreate natural processes in ways that take the viewer inside the doorman's mind. And the elaborate production design, with beautiful sets and well executed costumes, allows Murnau to show us a place that does not really exist: the city from the perspective of the doorman, darker and more forbidding than a real city might have looked had it been used for shooting some of the exterior scenes.
"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." This sarcastic statement, near the end of the film, points the film in a new direction, changing it from a moody, almost documentary story about a fired doorman to a short "rags-to-riches" comedy vignette. We see the man, abandoning the family who has abandoned him, lording his newfound wealth over the manager who fired him, now remembering the night watchman who took pity on him and the poor who are treated by others with disdain. The shock of the ending, strangely, seems to counteract some of the heavy-handedness of the first part of the film which was not as believable. Now the audience is simply happy for the doorman instead of considering his own missteps that may have added to his misfortune or the overreaction of the other characters. The ending provokes thought long after the film has ended.
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