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.

Perhaps it is not too unfair to say that it is all thoroughly Germanic. Although The Last Laugh has a tacked on “happy ending,” the dominant feeling—as in so much of Murnau and of Weimar cinema in general—is one of foreboding. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to credit Siegfried Kracauer’s idea, put forth in his From Caligari to Hitler (1947), that there was an inevitability about the Nazis that can be seen in German films of the 1920s and early 1930s, there was certainly a pervasive pessimism underlying all the frolic that made Berlin the fun capital of Europe. One can find it in the paranoia of Fritz Lang and in the cynicism of G. W. Pabst, and one can certainly find it in the perversity and bestiality of Nosferatu. Murnau was also a closeted homosexual and, although the bohemian Berlin art scene was a relatively safe place at the time, this must have been a psychic burden to anyone born eighty years before Stonewall.

All due credit must be given to Emil Jannings, who gives (for once) a restrained and moving performance. Jannings was shortly to take a brief, Oscar-winning turn in Hollywood before dragging the Jewish Josef von Sternberg to Berlin to direct him in The Blue Angel; Jannings showed his true colors during the Third Reich, winning high honors from the Nazis. Banished from the film industry after the war, Jannings can be said to have experienced some of the humiliation he was so good at portraying in The Last Laugh. After two classical adaptations also starring Jannings (Tartuffe and Faust), Murnau went to Hollywood himself and staged something of a revolution in film style and production. He’ll be back next month.

There will also be two more chances to see Nosferatu, on March 6 and 8, in Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters—so catch Nosferatu before he catches you. And on the horizon this fall is Laurence Kardish’s massive Weimar Kino exhibition here at MoMA.

Finally, a note of apology. In my posting on Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, I referred to the “grotesque gargoyles” who inhabit his film Greed. This was a phrase Andrew Sarris had used in his book on Sternberg, published by the Museum in 1966. So while this was totally inadvertent, I do apologize to Andy. As someone once said, “If you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best?”