not in our stars, but in ourselves
Back to the Weimar Republic, where I belong. And we’re here with F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), a hauntingly pathetic little story. It is haunting and pathetic, but extraordinarily made and acted. In the “hauptrolle,” as the opening credits call it (our hero has no name), is Emil Jannings: the man who could act with his back. Could he ever. I would also like to state, here and now, that the film could not work as anything but a silent. The Last Laugh is famous for its near-total absence of intertitles, usually used in silent films to clue the audience into what the actors are saying. But the words don’t matter here: only the actions, only the physical expression of despair.
The plot is simple. A doorman at the Atlantic Hotel (Jannings) has trouble carrying a trunk into the lobby, and his manager decides that he is too old and infirm to be the face of the hotel. He is stripped of his ornate uniform, in which he takes such pride, and demoted to washroom attendant – you know, someone who literally sits there and listens to you excreting waste matter, and then holds out a towel for you while you wash your hands. It is quite a downgrade. He manages to break into the hotel at night and steal back his uniform before he returns home to his tenement flat, where his neighbors have deferred to his seeming authority(albeit with some amusement), thus preserving some of his sense of self for another night. It happens to be the night of his daughter’s wedding, and he gets extremely drunk. When he finally passes out, he dreams of being a doorman again – so strong and able-bodied that a trunk too heavy for five men to carry is something he can easily hoist over his head, as easily as if it were a helium-filled balloon. The next morning, however, he awakens late and scrambles out the door in his uniform; deposits the uniform at a train station; and resumes his lowly position in the washroom. A neighbor decides to bring him a hot lunch, and expects to see him in his uniform outside the hotel. Surprised by his absence, she asks to see him – and screams aloud when she is taken to the top of the stairs that lead down to the men’s room where he is hunched over and miserable.
It just keeps getting worse and worse, until an ironic little twist that is tacked on in a very self-aware and broadly winking manner. Murnau has a bit of fun, and it is a relief after so much mounting tragedy. Until then, however, it’s just sad upon sad upon sad. Heavy stuff, man.
Discussions of The Last Laugh often point to the unique quality of the German psyche that imbues uniforms with such importance. That is true. It’s more than a sign of authority: it’s a sign of moral rightness, of wisdom, of usefulness, of – dare I say – manliness. The scene in which the hapless doorman is (quite literally) stripped of his uniform is a scene of emasculation. I don’t care for Freudian explanations – but there’s just no other way to interpret this one. His power, his self-worth, his strength all come from his uniform. Without it, he’s a shriveled husk of a man.
But if you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you know that I am always seeing parables of the Weimar Republic in films released between 1919 and 1933. This one strikes me as a doozie. We have the proud German, all puffed up and self-assured in his uniform. He thinks that alone confers him strength, but he falters. He stumbles. He is stripped of everything that made him who he thought he was, forced to return home to be ridiculed and despised. You see the parallels, yes? Germany strutted into World War I, confident that it would win. All the battles were fought elsewhere in Europe, so Germans – without any news of the war but what the state told them – believed everything was going just fine. Then came not only a horrifying defeat, but the added horror of the Versailles Treaty.
However, even if you don’t care for historical allegories (and if not, what’s wrong with you, anyhow?), you too can enjoy this film. Well, maybe not “enjoy,” as it is excruciatingly bleak, but appreciate. The entire thing was shot on Ufa soundstages, which isn’t unusual in itself, but the skill with which the outside world is recreated is masterful indeed. Pouring, hissing rain; gently beaming sunlight; cruelly cold wind; you can feel it all, just as well as you could if it had all really been shot outside. Shooting on location wasn’t the norm until well after World War II, so soundstages were part of the deal for the vast majority of movies throughout the 1940s, but you seldom forgot that you were watching an artificial atmosphere. You could still get lost in it, and admire it, and imagine its reality – but you knew it wasn’t real. I may be gullible, but I would have believed you if you’d told me it was shot on real locations outside the confines of a studio. To see virtuoso silent filmmaking at its most heartrending, you could do worse than to start with The Last Laugh.