The Last Laugh (foreign film)

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Der letzte Mann Film Directed by Friedrich Murnau (1924)[edit]

Der letzte Mann is one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. It was directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1924 in the studio of Universum Film AG, known as Ufa and located in Berlin. The screenplay was written by Carl Mayer, the producer was Erich Pommer and the cameraman was Karl Freund. The film was highly regarded as innovative for its psychological topic and for the innovative techniques used by the director (Murnau), by the cameraman and by the creativity promoting producer. The main roles were played by Emil Jannings (the doorman), Maly Delschaft (the niece of the doorman), Georg John (night watchman) and Hans Unterkircher (hotel manager). The film was produced as a silent film, but the intertitles, which were characteristic to the silent films of 1920’s, were not used. The genre of the film was known as a “chamber-camera” (Kammerspielfilm), which was an innovative style. The Kemmerspielfilm was essentially converted from the style of small theaters for the introduction to cinematography. Murnau and his team were the pioneers of Kemmeraspielfilm in cinematography.




The main character in the film is a doorman in a hotel. The name of the doorman, as well as the names of other characters are not given, which makes them not only anonymous, but also a sort of archetypes with whom various viewers could identify. The doorman saw his job as important and prestigious. He was dressed in a fancy decorated uniform, of which he was very proud. The doorman greeted people by saluting them, like a general. His uniform was full of brass decorations and, on first look, it appeared to be similar to a uniform of a general. Women were waving hands and men were taking hats off to respond to his salute. In his workplace, the doorman represented the splendor of the hotel and was the first person who was making the first impressions on the guests. However the doorman was also getting old and carrying luggage becomes increasingly difficult to him.

The doorman’s diminishing strength was noticed by the manager of the hotel, who quickly demoted the doorman to the position of a washroom attendant. As a washroom attendant the former doorman would no longer wear his decorated uniform and would no longer experience the feeling of being somebody important. Instead, he will be cleaning the shoes, de-dusting the garments, cleaning sinks and toilets. This demotion came as a shock to the doorman, who was struggling with himself to comprehend the change. The uniform was taken away from him and locked. Nevertheless, he managed to steal the key to the locker before it was locked by one of the housekeepers. At night, the doorman sneaked into the room with the uniforms and took back his uniform. Now, dressed in his decorated uniform, he went back to his apartment to participate in his daughter’s wedding. After the party the doorman still took some drinks and the film shows what he saw: rotating room, rotating doors and a scene where he, himself, demonstrated unbelievable strength in handling luggage. On his way back to the hotel, he was noticed by a curious neighbor-woman that he kept the uniform in a parcel service.

The news traveled quickly among the gossiping women that the doorman lost his "prominent" position and was demoted. With everybody gossiping, the doorman did not feel comfortable even with his own daughter and her new husband, so for the night he sneaked back to the hotel to return his uniform. He was noticed by the night watchman, who showed compassion to him and covered him with a coat while the doorman was sleeping on his chair in the washroom where he worked.

At this point, the movie displays its only sign, which comments that what would normally happen would be a miserable rest of the life for the person, but that the author of the screenplay had compassion to the old man and decided to end the film with an unlikely happy end. Therefore, the last scenes show the doorman receiving an unexpected inheritance from an essentially unknown millionaire named M.G. Money. Suddenly, the wheel of fortune turned its happy side toward the doorman.

The doorman is now shown as being an important guest in the hotel, where he previously worked. To show his appreciation for the compassion that he experienced from the night watchman, the doorman gave him presents. Both men have a feast in the hotel, then they leave for a carriage. While on the outside, on their way to the carriage, the doorman gives tips to all the service personnel from the hotel, who quickly alined along his way. In the final scene of the film, when both the doorman and the night watchman are in the carriage, a beggar asks the doorman for some money. The doorman invited the beggar to the carriage and even gave a tip to the new doorman, who was now in charge of bringing the guests inside.

A famous single-sentence summary of the plot in Der letzte Mann is attributed to Stephen Brockmann, who stated that the movie is presenting a plot where “a nameless hotel doorman loses his job”.[1]

Specific filmic and artistic methods[edit]

The film, while a financial success in Germany, was highly valued among professionals for the technical innovations introduced in the use of the camera, while filming the scenes. The techniques were introduced by the film director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, with creative contributions of his cameraman, Carl Freund.[2][3] The producer, Erich Pommer encouraged the team to become even more innovative by suggesting to them to continuously introduce something new, which will be creative. Nevertheless, the producer never overruled the director and the director had always the final word with respect to the film composition.[4] The use of a camera moving in all directions was a pioneering technique at the time of making Der letzte Mann and it even gained a specific name of “unchained camera” in the professional circles.[5] In Der letrzte Mann, the camera was moving in all directions, following what the viewer could expect. The moving of the location of the camera, blurring of a part of the screen, focusing and defocusing, combined with using different angles, all contributed to creating new perspectives and impressions on the viewers.[2] The montage that was used in putting the scenes together was also pioneering: Murnau’s technique was to use a smooth and rapid cutting in the initial scenes followed by a jarred cutting in the scenes where the doorman becomes humiliated. A combination of distortion and overlapping of multiple images was used in the scenes illustrating private vision of the drunk doorman.[3] The artistic part of the movie was in the acting of the actor playing the role of the doorman, that is acting of Emil Jennings. Jennings used creatively his face expressions, postures and movements, to which the cameramen provided enhancements by using closeups and the location of camera in such a way that the viewer sees nearly through the eyes of the doorman.[2]

Decorations and presentation of contrasting environments were also significant in making the overall artistic impression. The contrast between the rich environment of the “Atlantic” hotel and the lower class housing makes an impression of presentation of a realistic situations. The decorators for Der Letzte Mann were Robert Hearlth and Walter Röhring.[6] Another use of contrast was the illustration of the respect and essentially the power of the uniform combined with the ridicule and disregard which the doorman experienced after his demotion.

The power of the uniform in the German culture was actually analyzed in a scholarly article by Jon Hughes.[7] Wearing of a uniform appears to enhance masculinity of the person and provides some institutional power, as the wearer identifies himself/herself with the corresponding institution. Therefore, a uniform provides personal confidence and the respect of others,[7] as illustrated in Der letzte Mann. The quick ascension of the Nazis to power could also be attributed to their widespread use of uniforms.[8] The film Der letzte Mann illustrates clearly this effect of self-confidence and personal/institutional power as connected to wearing of a decorated uniform.

Historical contexts[edit]

The film was made in 1924, at the time of the Weimar Republic. The war reparation payments imposed on Germany caused skyrocketing inflation, economical collapse, food shortages, poverty, malnutrition and hunger.[9] Germans were looking for some hope for improvement of their situation. Even such an unrealistic possibility as inheritance of a money from somebody else was bringing some hope. This need for hope and the knowledge of the expectations from the general public were the reasons that Der letzte Mann had a happy, although unrealistic, epilogue.

The other historical fact is also that the German cinema started cooperation with the Hollywood producers and that there were mutual influences between these two cinematographic centers. This increasing cooperation resulted that in 1926 the German producers signed a contract with Hollywood, which started migration of German actors and directors to Hollywood. The effect was similar to the later observed “brain drain” of scientists, from all over the world, to the United States.[10]

One of the results of the early cooperation was that the director Alfred Hitchcock went to Berlin and started cooperation with Friedrich Murnau. Hitchcock was very impressed with Murnau’s “unchained camera” techniques and stated that his cooperation with Murnau was an “enormously productive experience” and that Der letzte Mann was an “almost perfect film”.[11] The cooperation with Murnau was for Hitchcock essentially a “key reference point”[5] Hitchcock also expressed his appreciation to Murnau’s camera-points-of-view and the subjective shots which provided “audience identification” with the main character.[12] High rating of Der letzte Mann in Hollywood was very high: “Hollywood simply raved about The Last Laugh noted Jan Horak.[13]

Cultural contexts[edit]

From the point of view of topic, Der letzte Mann resembles the play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare, except for the epoilogue.[14] For the commercial and psychological reasons, Murnau committed a violation of dramatic integrity, which made the ending somewhat artificial.[15] The other influence was the expressionism, being a dominating trend in the German cinema. Murnau decided to follow the convention of Kammerspielfilm, which was influenced by theatrical plays classified as the same genre and dedicated to psychological conflicts presented to small audiences. As a result, Murnau nearly totally eliminated subtitles from Der letzte Mann.[16] In the history of German and the international cinema Der letzte Mann has an established position as a classical film which has set creative directions in the techniques of filming and influenced Hollywood productions including productions of famous Alfred Hitchcock.[5]

Individual key scenes and their significance[edit]

There are several very striking individual scenes in the Der letzte Mann. The introductory scene, showing a proud hotel’s doorman in front of a rotating door sets the baseline for the rest of the film. The rotating door motif repeats itself several times in this Murneau’s film. The symbolic meaning is the wheel of fortune, which turns and may bring a change and even a reversal of bad situation.

The introductory scene of pride and self-confidence serves as a reference point to the humiliation scene, which follows quite shortly after. The scene of grief and humiliation on being unexpectedly demoted is probably the most emotionally affecting scene, where the viewer sees a friendly person of a good character ruthlessly demoted to a job which appears to him as an unjustified penalty.

The scene of a sudden change of fortune is emotionally less striking than the dramatic scenes of humiliation, which move the viewers to feel compassion for the old man who still wants to feel important and respected, in spite of losing his strength due to inevitable aging. The final scenes where the suddenly-rich doorman demonstrated forgiveness, generosity, compassion and remembering old friends is a positivist statement that good wins over evil, although the scene seems to be of low probability. However, in the historical context of the 1924, the ending, as it was used, made sense, as presenting one more drama to the already stressed population would do only disservice to the public.

Aspects of the critical reception of the film[edit]

In Germany, the film was highly rated by critics; it was also a significant financial success.[17] Lotte Eisner, who, at the time, worked for the Film-Kurier, a daily film newspaper published in Berlin, stated that the film was “preeminently a German tragedy, and can only be understood in a country where uniform is king, not to say god. A non-German mind will have difficulty in comprehending all its tragic implications”.[17]

Der letzte Mann was highly rated in Hollywood, although this rating was rather limited to the professionals in the movie-making industry. However, the movie did not make a cash-generating impact in the United States. Lotte Eisner was right, the film's psychological context was not understood in the United States due to a different mindsets and due to a different cultural and economical context. The most important symbolic concept, which made a lasting impression with several movie directors was the concept of the revolving doors[18]

Film’s popular and artistic reception[edit]

Since the film proved to be without any significant impact on American public, Der letzte Mann has not generated any re-recordings of the entire film. However, the film-frames were restored from the original rolls and the music was re-recorded for an English-version DVD released by a UK company Eureka! in 2008.[19]

The motif of the revolving doors, central to Der letzte Mann, became a catching one. This motif appeared in several movies over the years. One example is the film The Crowd (1928 film), where a revolving door is the central point of the action; the revolving door is used to mechanically match young males and females for dates.[20] The other movie, which used the motif of the revolving doors, was the post-unification German movie Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro. In this movie, the director, Jean-Luc Godard inserted in his film just a plain cut-and-paste scene from Der letzte Mann, to illustrate a repetition of a specific situation with two women entering a hotel.[18]

The symbolic suggestiveness of the revolving doors even inspired the concept of gyros (swirling cone-shaped spirals) appearing in the poetry of William Yeats, Nobel Prize winner in literature, in 1923.[21]


  1. ^ Prager, Brad. A critical history of German film. Monatshefte, Volume 103, No. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 472-474; (p.473)
  2. ^ a b c Franklin, James, C. Teaching culture through film: Der letzte Mann. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1980), p. 35, pp. 31-38.
  3. ^ a b Figge, Richard, C. Montage: The German film of the Twenties. Penn State University Press. URL: Accessed March 6, 2013.
  4. ^ Hardt, Ursula. Erich Pommer and Ufa: A Weimar film producer. Journal of Communication Inquiry (January 1989), 13 (1), p. 57, pg. 51-69.
  5. ^ a b c Bade, James, N. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006), p. 258, pp. 256-266.
  6. ^ Franklin, James, C. Teaching culture through film: Der letzte Mann. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1980), p. 34, pp. 31-38.
  7. ^ a b Hughes, Jon. 'Zivil ist allemal schadlich'. Clothing in German-language culture of the 1920s. Neophilologus, Volume 88 (2004), p. 439, pp. 429-445.
  8. ^ Hughes, Jon. 'Zivil ist allemal schadlich'. Clothing in German-language culture of the 1920s. Neophilologus, Volume 88 (2004), p. 444, pp. 429-445.
  9. ^ Franklin, James, C. Teaching culture through film: Der letzte Mann. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1980), p. 33, pp. 31-38.
  10. ^ Franklin, James, C. Teaching culture through film: Der letzte Mann. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1980), p. 36, pp. 31-38.
  11. ^ Bade, James, N. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006), p. 257, pp. 256-266.
  12. ^ Bade, James, N. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006), p. 256, pp. 256-266.
  13. ^ Horak, Jan. Sauerkraut and sausages with a little goulash: Germans in Hollywood, 1927. Film History: An International Journal, Volume 17, N0. 2/3 (2005), p. 242, pp. 241-260.
  14. ^ Calhoon, Ken. Silence restored: Three re-released films by F.W. Murnau. Modernism/modernity. Volume 19, No. 2, p. 374, pp. 373-381.
  15. ^ Franklin, James, C. Teaching culture through film: Der letzte Mann. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1980), p. 37, pp. 31-38.
  16. ^ Nagels, Katherine. 'Those funny subtitles': Silent film intertitles in exhibition and discourse. Early Popular Visual Culture, Volume 10, No. 4 (November 2012), p. 374, pp. 367-382.
  17. ^ a b Wakeman, John. World Film Directors, Volume 1. The H.W. Wilson Company. 1987. p.813.
  18. ^ a b Pavsek, Christopher. What has come to pass for cinema in late Godard. Discourse, Volume 28, No. 1, Winter 2006, p. 190, pp. 166-195.
  19. ^ Calhoon, Ken. Silence restored: Three re-released films by F.W. Murnau. Modernism/modernity. Volume 19, No. 2, p. 373, pp. 373-381.
  20. ^ Buzard, James. Perpetual revolution. Modernism/modernity. Volume 8, No. 4, p. 569, pp. 559-581.
  21. ^ Buzard, James. Perpetual revolution. Modernism/modernity. Volume 8, No. 4, p. 561, pp. 559-581.

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