Der Letzte Mann (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). Watching the film again restored on DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series, it is easy to see the qualities that attracted the American studio. Der Letzte Mann is a striking piece of work – no less inventive or moving than the film that would eventually cement the director’s reputation.
Emil Jannings (Tartuffe, Faust) - in very convincing make-up - is a porter at the Atlantic Hotel, where he has worked for many years. Although only a humble doorman, he nevertheless enjoys a position of prestige and respect, much of it associated with the clientele he works with at an important hotel, but it also has a lot to do with the very smart uniform he wears as the Chief Porter. He doesn’t take his position lightly, and perhaps even considers himself more important than he really is, for he still lives in a rundown tenement block on the poor side of town. The hotel uniform however sets him apart from his neighbours, who salute and bow down before him as he returns home at the end of each day.
But the Chief Porter is getting older, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the manager of the Atlantic who one particularly busy, rainy day sees him sit down for a rest and a reviving drink after struggling with a large and heavy trunk. He is replaced by a younger, fitter, stronger man, but out of respect for his service to the hotel he is to be sent to a shelter and allowed to remain engaged in the hotel in the rather less strenuous, and certainly less prestigious position as a washroom attendant. With his niece about to be married, it’s quite a blow for the old man, but the most humiliating aspect of his demotion that he can’t come to terms with is the loss of his uniform. Without it, he is just an old man, an ordinary person and no different from everyone else.
Emil Jannings, one of the most important German actors of the period, is simply outstanding in the role of the porter, managing to bring out the inner life of his character with subtle expression. With practically a complete absence of explanatory intertitles, his circumstances are almost completely visible in his bearing - his pride in his uniform, his dazed incomprehension as he loses it and his shameful skulking in the shadows against walls, bowed by the humiliation. In the absence of intertitles, Murnau and his crew are also pushed to inventively find more elaborate and sophisticated means of describing the porter’s condition and mental state, and they rise to the challenge with some remarkable sequences, using even the elements – from the rain beating the porter down into submission, to the wind tugging at him in derision. Most evidently however, much is achieved through the innovative cinematography of Karl Freund, his “unchained camera” following the action and moving in a manner never before seen in silent cinema. It’s not just there to dazzle and amaze – it succeeds in entering into the inner life of the character, frequently taking a point of view perspective in the blur of the man’s drunkenness and his dreams of empowerment to the very flow of sound, music and even gossip.
Naturalism and plausibility aren’t as important here as tapping into these emotional states and drawing out the underlying themes of the film, and it’s the theme of empowerment conveyed upon the owner by the uniform that is the important message in the film. The antimilitaristic nature of this theme is emphasised by the devastating sequence in which the old man is divested of garments by the hotel manager, a torn-off button falling to the floor signalling his effective demotion. Murnau subsequently makes effective use of extreme contrasts to emphasise social distinctions and attitudes towards people in perceived positions of power, and even manages to push this contrast with the marvellous added-on happy ending which shows where the real power lies.
Der Letzte Mann is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema catalogue. The DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
Using the same Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung restoration as the original Eureka release from 2004 (reviewed here), the transfer on the new Masters of Cinema edition doesn’t look radically different – which is fine since the original transfer was very impressive. There is a certain haziness in the image, but this is largely an effect intended by the filmmakers. Contrast is generally good, but perhaps a little boosted, with whites slightly glaring in places. Stability is strong and there is little in the way of brightness flicker. There is also surprisingly little grain and little damage other than the most minor of fleeting tramline scratches and occasional flecks of dust and only the very rare larger mark.
The principal advantage of the new transfer is that it is progressive where the previous edition was interlaced, which certainly makes the image flow just that little more smoothly, but the benefits aren’t that evident unless you have a progressive display. There is still a large amount of shimmer evident, as there was on the previous edition, with thin horizontal lines flickering and diagonals particularly having a tendency to break up. Most surprisingly however, the image is also a little softer than the older edition, even with the interlacing on the 2004 release. Screen shots below show the difference – the new edition to the left, the old version to the right (click each to enlarge to full screen). The framing also seems slightly off on the new edition, shifting the image down, leaving a thin line of matting above and losing some of the detail lower in the frame.
The audio track contains Giuseppe Becce’s original 1924 soundtrack composed for the film, re-recorded in 2002. It’s a fantastic recording and a magnificent soundtrack – supervised by Murnau himself - which supports the film quite brilliantly. Surprisingly, the new edition has dropped the outstanding Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the previous release, though the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that remains is also strong and effective.
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. Subtitles however are used to translate the explanatory text on the restoration at the start of the film, and those few instances during the film. These are optional and in a clear white font.
The only extra feature included on the disc, carried over from the previous Eureka edition, is Luciano Berratúa’s brilliant Making Of Documentary (40:34). Absolutely essential, it’s 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. It’s illustrated with numerous photographs, production stills, promotional material and historical documentation, building into a complete study of the film and its restoration. Simply amazing.
The Facts & Dates, listing cast and crew along with technical information on shooting, camera, screenings etc, and the Biographical information from the previous release are dropped in favour of a new Masters of Cinema 36-page booklet, which has a good balance of critical and historical information. R. Dixon Smith covers the history of the film and its relationship with Expressionism and the Chamber-play; Tony Rayns, in an older article from 1974, less compellingly looks for motifs in the geometrical patterns of the film; set designer Robert Herlth recounts how the on-set innovations came about and were put into practice; and an essay by Murnau himself succinctly describes his filmmaking method and philosophy. As ever, the booklet is beautifully illustrated with production photographs, publicity still and poster designs.
Over 80 years since it was made, F. W. Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann is still a masterpiece of silent cinema - a marvellous collaboration by a team of filmmakers at a crucial period in film history preceding the advent of talkies, devising innovations in the medium that they would shortly take with them to Hollywood. Utterly accessible with its simple story and simple moral, Murnau’s genius and his unchained camera nevertheless allows Der Letzte Mann to delve beyond the image and achieve sensations in cinema that would be unmatched until Citizen Kane. If you don’t yet own this film on DVD, the new Masters of Cinema release presents this essential film very well with outstanding supplemental features, but it’s perhaps not quite enough of an improvement to upgrade from the earlier Eureka release.