F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh blows an elementally simple story up to the level of opera. Working with screenwriter Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund, among other legends of German cinema, Murnau fashions a city of dreams that thrives on a resonant contrast between classes. The Hotel Atlantic is a luxurious paradise, with feasts, classical music, ballrooms, and glass elevators. Nearby is a lower-middle class neighborhood, composed of drab apartments that’re visually defined by women peering out of windows and beating dust out of rugs on stair railings. Transporting people between these worlds are portals that embody the fragility of social boundaries, such as the rotating entryway of the Atlantic, which whisks the wealthy in and spits undesirables out into a cacophonous urban nightscape.
Holding these worlds together, offering us an entryway into The Last Laugh, is the hotel’s unnamed porter (Emil Jannings), a proletariat man who derives immense satisfaction from his proximity to the first class, as embodied by an elaborate uniform that causes him to resemble an antiquated military officer. Clad in wild hair and poignantly ludicrous muttonchops, standing at seemingly seven feet in a 300-pound frame, Jannings offers a portrait of the worker bee as colossus, revealing the porter’s pride and vanity to be powerful and superficial as well as indicative of unbearable vulnerability. When the porter removes an enormous trunk from the top of a cab in a rainstorm, Murnau and Jannings frame this action as a heroic quest, suggesting that this is the porter’s version of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.
When modern filmmakers attempt to portray the plight of the poor, they often lean on condescendingly spare realist tropes, implying that impoverished people might not have the interiority that necessitates expressionism. By contrast, Murnau and Jannings viscerally define the porter’s mindscape, exploring his fantasies and shifting emotional states. Jannings is more than formidable enough to hold up to the formal trickery that Murnau and Freund employ throughout the film, particularly the sets and roving tracking shots—early and influential attempts at Steadicam—that suggest floating consciousness. The camera’s movements alternately symbolize our point of view and that of the porter, tethering the two in a manner that parallels the film’s conjoining of the upper and lower classes. Everyone’s in this world together, simultaneously surrounded and separate. Yet connection isn’t always desirable, as illustrated by camera zooms that emphasize the stifling closeness of the porter’s neighbors, as they hear of his downfall and revel in his humiliation, shouting gossip from one apartment window to another.
The sequences detailing the porter’s demotion at the Atlantic are The Last Laugh’s most piercing. The porter reads of his relegation to the lavatory, his face frozen in deflation that signals a fatal shattering of a personal sense of stature. When the porter’s forced to remove his uniform, a button falling onto the floor in a heartbreakingly impotent flourish, he suggests a walrus being skinned. Jannings subsequently alters his character’s body language, seemingly losing a foot of height in the process. The actor masochistically revels in the porter’s ruination, especially when the character’s crawling on the porcelain floor of the bathroom, which is on the lowest level of the Atlantic, suggesting a spotless hell that exists below paradise. The porter resembles an actor who’s lost his greatest role, allowing Jannings to plumb an artist’s worst fears of uselessness and dejection.
As a fascinating making-of documentary included with this Kino Lorber release observes, The Last Laugh is a parody of the premium that Germans place on the power of rank and uniform—a cultural danger that isn’t exclusive to their country. The porter enjoys his vicarious rarefied status and is brought to nearly suicidal stupor by its withdrawal, unable to perform the tasks of a lavatory assistant. But when he’s rendered wealthy by a facetious deus ex machina, he returns to the bathroom and voluntarily does his duty on the behalf of his replacement. In other words, the porter doesn’t regain his physical power until a vague social standing has been bestowed on him. Murnau shows our identities to be terrifyingly beholden to society, bridging critique with melodrama in images of biblical power that would help to define the syntax of the blossoming medium of cinema.
Even without considering the laborious history of The Last Laugh’s restoration—which is detailed by this disc’s supplemental materials—this transfer looks and sounds miraculous. Yes, there are minor lines and blips in the image, but clarity and depth are rich and prismatic, honoring the film’s obsession with worlds within worlds. The blacks are fulsome, particularly in the poetic city backdrops, and the whites are sharp, as evinced by the impeccable crystal sheen of the film’s mirrors, windows, and polished surfaces. Facial detail is revelatory, suggesting that of a film less than half of The Last Laugh’s age.
There are two soundtracks, which are composed only of differing scores. There’s a new track, featuring a musical score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and an older mix, with the original 1924 score by Giuseppe Becce, as orchestrated by Detlev Glanert in 2003. In terms of aural dimension and nuance, these mixes are equally formidable, boasting robust soundstages with distinguished instrumentation. I personal prefer Glanert’s performance of the Becce score, as it’s more restrained than the new music, offering a tonal counterpoint to the operatic visuals. The score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra is beautiful but literal-mindedly enlarges the film’s already enormous emotions. That said, it’s wonderful to have such a choice at all, which offers an informative illustration of how music complements imagery.
The supplements offer a coherent portrait of the confusing story of The Last Laugh's creation and restoration. In short, three versions of the film were prepared for a German release, an American release, and general international exhibition, respectively. As introductory notes before the film specify, this restoration is based on materials assembled from various partial German sources. "The Last Laugh, Making Of" outlines the differences between the versions, with the German print featuring the best takes, though fabulous trick shots were included in the American print because of cinematic competition between the two nations. This documentary also details the work of creating a city within the UFA studio, comparing frames from all three versions to reveal the variations of the special effects, which are also contextualized within the evolving canon of German and global cinema. Karl Freund's cinematography, with its figurative distortion effects and mobile camera, was revolutionary. The audio commentary by film historian Noah Isenberg offers a deeper dive into the history of The Last Laugh, outlining the contributions of the major players while examining the film's symbolism and merging of the German chamber drama and street drama. Also included, for historic posterity, is a DVD with an unrestored export version of the film, with opening notes to offer more distribution information.
A beautiful transfer of a revolutionary and emotionally devastating masterpiece of early cinema, with supplements that sort out the film's tangled origin story.