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"The Last Laugh" in One Shot

F.W. Murnau and Emil Janning's landmark 1924 drama of an aging doorman encapsulated in a single shot.
Greg Cwik
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) is showing May 3 - June 2, 2020 in the United States in the series Weimar Cinema.
The Last Laugh
An aging doorman (Emil Jannings), portly and pleasant and proud of his job, has become an eyesore for the decorous hotel where he works, and is unceremoniously deposed from his job. He becomes inconsolable. This is a man who defines himself by his vocation, who isn’t even given a name. At night, he bumbles down the streets in drunken discomfiture, cowering as buildings conspire and the city threatens to crush him. Even his imperial beard, redolent of Franz Josef’s formidable whiskers, can’t hide the look of destitution on his face. F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh shares with its viewers many moments of vulnerability, moments of shame and embarrassment and desperation, when the doorman is at his most pitiful, standing like an implement and offering towels to successful men who don’t even look at him. The film, shot by Karl Freund, is revered for the unprecedented mobility of its camera, which, emancipated from the constraints of a tripod, maneuvers gracefully through rooms of affluent socialites and lurches past the inimical apartment buildings where the lower-class lives. But Murnau was just as deft with his editing. Consider his use of multiple exposures in the scene when, after a night of maudlin drinking, the doorman passes out, and his face, serene in unconsciousness, fills the frame. The hotel’s double doors materialize and he appears, standing tall, impressive in his uniform, a respectable man. Our suffering hero searches for solace in fantasy, receding deeper into solipsism, and the film remains faithful to his perspective. It is an intensely subjective work. The only intertitle in the film appears near the end, letting us know that the doorman’s story can only end in undignified death, but the author instead elects to perpetuate the doorman’s dream and give his character a celebratory, “improbable” ending: the serendipitous acquisition of a fortune, a sumptuous feast, the servant being served. Rejecting the fate that reality has chosen, our doorman decides to remain in fantasy, where he can be happy. Who are we to take that away from him?

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