F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) is one of those silent films you should watch if you (a) love movies but (b) are wary of silent ones. Let me assure you that there is a list--I should show you mine one day--of silent movies that will cure you of your not-entirely-unwarranted hesitation, and The Last Laugh is one of them.
Still, depending on your age, the silent era is two or three generations removed from your experience, so I will not be such a snob as to scold you for a perfectly natural apprehension. Let's keep in mind that plenty of avid, even serious readers have to take a deep breath before reading Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Homer, let alone most poetry. So we'll agree that the problem exists. Now, let me try to solve it.
The director of The Last Laugh is best known for Nosferatu (1922), his "unathorized" version of Dracula. But he also directed other remarkable films, most notably a version of Faust (1926) followed by Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931), all noteworthy because of their collective commitment to fluid camerawork and expressive set design that work together to reflect his characters' personalities and perspectives.
Watching Murnau is a curiously "modern" experience, if only because, in a variety of classic and contemporary films, from Citizen Kane (1941) and Night of the Hunter (1955) to Scorsese's and Spielberg's restless cameras, we see Murnau's influence. Consider the sharp slanting light that cuts through the shot compositions of film noir, the subjective perspective as the camera moves smoothly through the bar scene in Mean Streets, or the swooping glance across the audience in The Age of Innocence. And let's not forget the giddy low-tech stunts that got Barry Sonnenfeld (as cinematographer for Raising Arizona) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) noticed, not to mention the dizzying tracking, dolly, and handheld shots that thrust us headlong onto the beach in Saving Private Ryan. One can see Murnau's hand at work everywhere a director wants to carry us with and into the action.
In The Last Laugh (German title: Der Letzte Mann, literally, "the last man"), Murnau brings his bold acrobatics to a painfully simple story. An anonymous hotel porter/doorman (played by the formidable Emil Jannings, who came to Hollywood, was made unemployable by talkies, and returned to Germany, where he became a leading figure in Hitler's film industry), whose identity derives exclusively from his position--even more specifically his uniform, with its heavy square shoulders, epaulets, and shining buttons. He lives among the working poor, but works among the gaiety of Germany's Roaring '20s. Preening, flirting, manfully hoisting luggage, he gains all his status via the irony of his job: He is the fanciest laborer in his neighborhood.
But he is getting on in years, and the hotel manager notices how he struggles with a trunk perched high upon a rain-swept taxi, and the bit of a sit-down he needs afterwards, and immediately demotes him. He is now a washroom attendant, spending his days underground, brushing dinner jackets, supplying towels, accepting small tips. He even takes his meals in the bathroom.
Ashamed, he attempts to keep his demotion a secret, stealing his confiscated uniform and donning it as he approaches home, where he climbs the stairs past the other tenants, who as usual cease beating rugs and emptying garbage pails in deference to his uniform. While his pride, his very identity, has been sullied and soiled, the uniform is spared.
Eventually, the truth emerges, and the neighbors who had given him such respect turn on him, jeering at his diminished state. He is now their equal, and the object of their scorn.
The ex-porter reels from these humiliations, casting himself down even lower than the hotel manager and his neighbors ever could. Alone, completely extinguished, he slumps in the dimness of the lavatory.
Murnau tells the story without the intertitles we often depend on in silent films--so that it is more fitting to state that he does not "tell," but truly "shows." The action occurs in a special kind of silence: All of the exposition and character development is physical, down to Jannings' remarkably expressive face.
It is a pantomime of epic proportions, set amid looming skyscrapers--at one point the hotel where he works, now an object of dread, literally bends toward him like a great, leaning monolith, threatening to crush him--and increasingly darkened streets and rooms. This alone is enough to give this movie a special place in film history.
Something else, though, occurs in its last ten minutes that struck me deeply the first time I saw it, when I was in college, and has haunted my attitude toward film ever since.
It is a turn of events that Roger Ebert finds "improbable and unsatisfying." The ex-doorman is alone in the bathroom, so still he might as well be dead, and the scene fades. Suddenly, the film's only intertitle appears, and states, "Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue." As Ebert tells it in his "The Great Movies" essay, "The doorman accidentally inherits a fortune, returns to the hotel in glory and treats all his friends to champagne and caviar, while his old enemies glower and gnash their teeth."
Ebert complains it is a painfully obvious tacked-on happy ending to soothe the sensibilities of the day. Perhaps; but even on its own, it is a remarkable sequence, filled with glorious excess, scenes of eating and gleeful consumerism, punctuated by not only gnashed teeth but the delighted, and I think condescending, smiles of the other hotel guests.
When I first saw this film I was stunned. But unlike Ebert I did not feel cheated by the ending; instead, it taught me a simple but fundamental lesson about film storytelling that I have never forgotten. In that moment when Murnau--better yet, as the intertitle puts it, "the author" (shades of auteur!) steps in and yanks the story out from under us, he completely undermines our trust in film narrative--a trust that is at once immediate but fleeting, because as the images roll on, we are forced to watch closely, lest we miss something. And we expect that attention to be rewarded with a recognizable narrative arc, rising and falling as all narrative has since we hunched around the fire and told our stories--and then of course drew the tale on the walls (I like to think of them as the first storyboards).
But the film punishes us for paying such close attention, for trusting "the author" so much, and reminds us of the power of storytellers to do what they please. It is unfair but, in a stinging Socratic way, instructive: The Last Laugh sets us up to thwart us. All of our intellectual and emotional investments derive from the choice we've made to be manipulated by the film; if so, we have no right to complain when the manipulation continues counter to our expectations. After seeing The Last Laugh I learned that I can trust myself as I watched movies, but need to be on guard. Dangers lurk in a great movie because it's freer than my needs; in fact, it may even have an agenda counter to those needs.
Over the years, I've found the caution that Murnau taught me to be a good thing. It has increased my pleasure when my expectations have been fulfilled, and thrilled me like a roller-coaster when thwarted. In either case, I'm reminded I'm merely one of those "little people out there in the dark"; but there's nowhere else I'd rather be.