The Last Laugh Review
The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann – literally, "The Last Man", but the title was changed as there was already a US film of that name) was the film that brought F. W. Murnau to the attention of the Fox studios in the United States, who would give him the budget that would allow him to make the remarkable Sunrise (1927). Looking at the restored DVD release of The Last Laugh it is easy to see what attracted the American studio. The Last Laugh is a striking piece of work – no less inventive or moving than the film that would eventually cement the director’s reputation.
The leading German actor of the period, Emil Jannings (Faust, Tartuffe) in very convincing make-up, is the doorman at the Atlantic Hotel, where he has worked for many years. The manager of the hotel notices him struggling with a large suitcase on a particularly bad day and advises him that he is going to be retired because of his "infirmity". This comes as a bad blow for the man – not just the realisation that he is getting old, but perhaps more importantly the lost of status that he believes comes with the position. He may be a humble porter and doorman, but the uniform he wears sets him apart from the other poor people in the crumbling tenement block where he lives with his niece, who is about to get married. Being retained as a lavatory attendant at the hotel is a humiliation he cannot bear, so he steals his uniform and slips into it when he returns home in the evening.
(Click images to enlarge)
There are some magnificent sequences in the film, which manages to convey its story completely silently without the use of any subtitles or intertitles. Loosely based on Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, there is an important message in the film, an antimilitaristic condemnation of the belief in the power of a uniform. The porter’s pride can be clearly seen in Jannings bearing as he leaves home each morning, perfectly contrasted with the skulking and shuffling of a broken man as he returns humiliated after his demotion and loss of his uniform. Apart from the clear visual storytelling aspects of the film, Karl Freund’s photography is also technically breathtaking, remarkably mobile and fluid, showing much of the innovation that would be expanded upon in Sunrise. A dream-sequence where the doorman dreams of the supernatural power that the uniform confers on him commences with long pull-back from the horn of a trumpet through a sequence of blurs, dissolves, superimpositions and handheld effects that are truly spectacular and daring.
Eureka have released a fully restored version of the film on DVD for its 80th anniversary. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The film was restored under the direction of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. The film is shown at the original correct speed of 20fps at 1.33:1 aspect ratio and features a new recording of the original score composed for the film.
The film has been just as carefully restored here as some of the more high-profile German Expressionist classics. The main part is restored from the original German negative incorporating elements from other export negatives where necessary (there are three different negatives in existence). There result is a strong, brightly lit image with crisp tones and contrast – much like the version of Fritz Lang’s M, restored and released on DVD by Eureka last year. There is some grain and it does seem to cause some minor blocking and unsteadiness. Inevitably there is damage that couldn’t be repaired fully, but the kind of marks and scratches you would expect to see are minimal. Some of the screen captures make the DVD look like it suffers from excessive edge enhancement, but I couldn't detect this to any great extent through normal playback. It is possible that these are just movement artefacts from a film which runs slower than 24fps.
The DVD contains both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 versions of Giuseppe Becce’s original 1924 soundtrack composed for the film, re-recorded in 2002. The sound is strong and effective – the DD 5.1 mix accompanies the film particularly well without overdoing use of the surrounds.
Apart from an introduction to the epilogue, there are no intertitles on The Last Laugh. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer made the film to be completely silent with only a few on-screen pieces of text. The text from the original German print is used here, with subtitles translating. Intertitles were introduced into export versions of the film, but they are not used in the restored print.
Making of the film (40:36)
The only substantial extra feature on the DVD is nevertheless an excellent one – a meticulous and in-depth investigation into how the film was made, presented and promoted. A substantial part of the documentary looks at how the forced perspectives were shot, what cameras were used (even going as far as to examine indistinct reflections of the film crew on glass doors in the film), and goes into tremendous depth on the differences between the different film negatives and how the restoration brought these together. Fascinating. Simply a superb documentary. In German with English subtitles.
Facts & Dates
Cast and crew listings along with technical information on shooting, camera, screenings etc.
Detailed biographies and filmographies of the principal cast and crew.
F W Murnau's career was cut tragically short after a car accident in 1931, but the few works he left behind that are still in existence are truly wonderful films. The Last Laugh has been beautifully restored and presented on DVD by Eureka and it easily ranks alongside Murnau's more famous films. If you believe that Sunrise, Nosferatu and Faust are tremendous Murnau works, you must also see The Last Laugh.