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February 9, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh
The Last Laugh. 1924. Germany. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Universum-Film (UFA)

The Last Laugh. 1924. Germany. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Universum-Film (UFA)

These notes accompany the screening of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), which screens on February 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.

Friedrich Wilhelm (F. W.) Murnau (1888–1931) had already made over a dozen films before The Last Laugh, but only Nosferatu (1922) can be said to have raised any blip on the international scene—and Nosferatu didn’t open in America until 1929 (after The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, Faust, and Sunrise), receiving a dismissively condescending review in The New York Times. So, few were prepared for what may be the best film ever made by a German in Germany.

The style of The Last Laugh is derived from the Kammerspiele, introduced by the great stage impresario Max Reinhardt, of whom Murnau (along with almost everyone else of note) was a disciple. Reinhardt proposed an intimate theater with dim lighting in which the audience was close enough to the stage for the actors to perform with greater subtlety. Lotte Eisner, the doyenne of film scholarship of the Weimar era, makes the point that the Expressionist technique that had come to predominance in German cinema by 1924 is only peripheral to Murnau’s achievement. She contends that Murnau’s moving camera “is never used decoratively or symbolically…every movement…has a precise, clearly-defined aim.” (Whatever its rationale, Murnau’s camera mobility and long takes set a standard for such future masters as Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls, and was developed into the counter-theory to the montage postulated by Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviets. One of the great achievements of Orson Welles was to synthesize these two approaches.) According to Eisner, the director’s use of “opalescent surfaces streaming with reflections, rain, or light…is an almost Impressionistic way of evoking atmosphere.” She also suggests that the supposed ponderousness of the film is a way of lending gravitas and significance to what is, after all, a trivial event: the demotion of a doorman to mens-room attendant. Read more