The Man Who Laughs

From about 1926 to 1930, cinema was at its most ambitious and sophisticated. The grasp of narrative within a purely visual medium was extraordinary. It’s only when you take a deep dive into films from that time that you realise what was lost by the advent of sound. F. W. Murnau’s beautiful Sunrise from 1928 still stands as one of the finest films ever made. 

Also in 1928, Paul Leni adapted Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. It is at once technically audacious, a pure example of German Expressionism, and the inspiration for The Joker in DC Comics’ original Batman run in 1940. How’s that for crossing cultural boundaries?

Paul Leni and cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton previously worked on horror film, The Cat and The Canary (1927) and considering the premise of black market surgeons carving up the faces of children and the German Expressionism, it’s only natural to read this film as horror too. It has a legacy as such, influencing 1930s Universal monsters and beyond, but as Roger Ebert said, the story is a melodrama, an unfairly criticised genre in recent years. Actually, the story is great fun, with a healthy splash of Gothic swashbuckling romance. Like Victor Hugo’s other work, Les Miserables, it packs some emotional heft and has an epic sweep to it. The plot structure is not unlike Phantom of the Opera (which also starred the luminous Mary Philbin) and Leni’s committed direction wrings potential out of every moment. Conrad Veidt is wonderful as the lovelorn circus freak with a rictus grin.

Bereft of the clumsiness the following years of early talkies would bring, curtailing such ambition, the simplest of compositions are bold and the film has a delicious energy. Scenes are opulent with lively detail and editing is occasionally extraordinary. 

Perhaps the construction of the thing is more obvious because such historical period epics would come to be rather staid and serious. Indeed, when we think of “melodrama” we probably remember the lazy overwrought and bloated Hollywood epics which couldn’t be further from this delightful film. This is a rich and detailed story, with room for intrigue, humour and even a cheeky sensuality thanks to pre-code shenanigans. Fans of The Favourite might see some similarities and yet, the best part of 100 years later, Yorgos Lanthimos is supposed to be the revolutionary. Well, of course he is. It’s just taking this long for us to embrace capabilities of the medium that were always there. 

The links with Batman and The Joker 12 years later give The Man Who Laughs another layer of atmosphere. Conrad Veidt is a clear inspiration for the original comic treatment and Cesar Romero’s take on the villain for the Batman TV show. Most recently, last year’s Batman comic run by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo featured a new villain: The Batman Who Laughs – the legacy of a German Expressionist melodrama that continues to influence. 


The Man Who Laughs straddled the odd transitional period as that sound gimmick approached. While it was truly a silent film, it had a soundtrack theatres could use if they wished or were able. The original Movietone track with some effects is included. It’s crude, but interesting and authentic. My preference was for the new recording which might be a bit polished for some, but is brilliant and respectful. 


It may seem counter-intuitive but films from the silent era frequently respond well to restorations and this 4k sourced 1080p transfer is no exception. Some shimmer in the frames is to be expected and it’s not at all distracting. The silvery image is steady and sharp throughout, regardless of brightness. Detail is extraordinary, especially considering how busy the mise en scene is, even if it’s just snow whipped up by a storm. 


Kim Newman on Paul Leni: Excellent piece that re-evaluates Leni’s importance in development of the horror genre. Someone who might have matched Murnau, if either man had not died young. 

The Face Deceives: A video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson. Dry but rich in detail that looks at the history of the production and those involved within it. 

Paul Deni and The Man Who Laughs: A video essay by John Soister. Rounding out an excellent set of three pieces, John looks at Paul Leni’s background. 

Stills Galleries: So often, a gallery of production stills is the least inspiring option but this is a fantastic collection. Maybe even the best of the extra features, for once, the excellent quality of the video essays not withstanding. It’s not often you need a second menu to manage them and being from the silent era, they’re wonderfully evocative. Plus, it’s full of copies of promotional material, newspaper articles and lobby instructions. It forms a fascinating time capsule, especially for seeing how they handled the transition to sound; there’s even a listening guide for the Movietone track. 

The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK on August 17.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

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