The Last Laugh (German, 1924) – In pursuit of the Roots of Honor
The filmatic language was completely based on visuals in the silent era. Everything from plot to narration, from human emotions to messages conveyed, had to rely solely on the visuals. In fact the power of cinema was more pronounced in the early years of cinema history till the dawn of the talkies. The theatrical techniques were borrowed for the acting performances and were basically exaggerated dramatizations. These overtures were inevitable in the theatre which was the only mean to reach the entire group of spectators. Later in cinema the same was considered as the yard stick for acting.
Later in the history of Cinema while more complex stories were handled rather than just moving images with simple plot lines, to increase the effect of the story conveyed along with the shots inter titles were shown. This helped a viewer to get closer to the characters and their conversations. This also, in a way, helped the filmmaker to elaborate the story told via moving images. This later became a convention in the films of the 1920s.
This film “The Last Laugh” directed by noted German film maker of the silent era F.W.Murnau. He was one of the pioneers of the Kammerspeilfilm Movement, in German Cinema. The core idea of the movement was to bring out cinematic portraits of the lower middle class. Though the movement was short lived this movie serves a standing testimony to it. Unlike the peers of its era this film tries to convey the story almost entirely through visuals, marked by near absence of inter titles. Hence the dramatization seems elevated and the characterizations punctuated by surplus histrionics.
The Last Laugh tells us the story of Maly Delschaft, a doorman of a famous luxury hotel Atlantic, proud of his position and loves to flaunt it. Every day from his home on his way to work, he walks with pride wearing his uniform, receiving the respectful salutes from his neighborhood. Amid his work, after helping a customer with a heavy luggage he rests for a while. The manager takes it as lack of sincerity.
The next day Maly learns that he is demoted as a washroom attendant. His plea for pardon goes unheard. He is forced to return his uniform. To him returning his uniform is similar to surrendering his pride. After this the film follows Maly and his attempts to maintain his honor amid his neighborhood. He steals the closet key, retracts his uniform.
Every day from home he walks with his usual pride, leaves his uniform in the cloak room of the nearby rail station, changes to his uniform as washroom attendant. But his act doesn’t sell for long. Very soon his domestic help sees his actual designation in the hotel and the news spreads around. Mely becomes a subject of mockery. Nonetheless Carl Mayer, the writer of the film, gives a sweet feel-good twist towards the end, in this otherwise poignant tale.
Mely’s act of stealing the closet key to have his uniform back, roots from his fear of societal rejection. The film demonstrates intelligibly how people respect each other. Often the society’s respect is intended to the positions rather than to the persons holding them. This work highlights the linkage between one’s social status and the societal approval. It also mulls over the self-esteem of a man fed by the position he holds.
Emil Jannings shoulders the entire film through his splendid acting, although it might seem an overdosed performance for a viewer today. From camera angles to plot development through visuals, Murnau’s mastery is evident throughout the film. Bold close ups speak volumes of emotions and brings out the mental confusions of the protagonist and it is artistically effective. If you’re interested in studying human behavior this film is worth viewing. Also it would thoroughly engage a serious cinephile.