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January 6, 2008

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Silent Reflections – The Last Laugh (1924)

by HELEN GEIB

The Last Laugh kicks off a five week series at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater on German Expressionism, a perennial favorite of movie lovers for its technical virtuosity and stunning imagery. Directed by F.W. Murnau, photographed by Karl Freund, and starring Emil Jannings, The Last Laugh is a dazzling achievement in the form.

The silent cinema forerunner of film noir, German Expressionism is a distinctive visual style characterized by extreme camera angles, menacing shadows, deformed landscapes, and distorted human figures. Performances are stylized and exaggerated. In its most famous exemplars, it is employed to make manifest individual insanity in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and society’s collective madness in Metropolis.

The story of The Last Laugh is unexpected in a film movement commonly concerned with the fantastical and horrific. It directs the full battery of expressionist techniques to telling the prosaic story of an ordinary man whose sense of self is destroyed when he is demoted from hotel doorman to washroom attendant. The approach is startlingly effective. Deprived of the uniform that has been his identity, the man sees once familiar streets and buildings become sinister and forbidding and neighbors transform into grotesque, mocking figures. It’s a powerful visualization of a psychological breakdown.

The Last Laugh famously has almost no title cards. There’s isn’t a single dialogue card. There’s one text card and two instances where the camera pans over words that a character is reading on screen. Telling a story almost entirely through images is one of the hallmarks of Murnau’s directing style and The Last Laugh is well suited to that aesthetic. The simple, poignant scenario is amenable to being told without explanatory cards and Janning’s expressive performance obviates the need for dialogue cards.

The Last Laugh is also one of the most famous examples of studio interference. It’s certainly not the only film to have been re-written under the directive to give the story a happy ending. As far as I know, it is the only one with an on-screen disclaimer preceding the new ending. The film’s single title card is a paragraph setting out that the story should end here (i.e., on the heartbreaking image of the broken man) except the writer has cooked up a happy ending, and explaining the nonsensical manner in which the former doorman came into the fortune that he spends the short remainder of the film celebrating. It’s amazing that a studio that would insist on that ending would accept an introductory title card that tells the audience that the very same ending is ridiculous and fanciful.

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  1. Jan 7 2008

    This sounds like an amazing piece of work. I’m reminded of that breakthrough Buffy episode, Hush, which used only music and facial expressions to tell almost the entire story. It was amazingly effective. I really do wish some of these movies were more available.

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