Bloody hell, this is depressing. It also plays tricks with your head, should you make the mistake of getting a bit antsy and Google the story of the film and the lives of its cast. Silent Steve tutted at me as I found out more about the people on the screen, what they contributed to film history and, more horribly, what they contributed to actual history. For this is a German film, made in 1924, deep in the years of the Weimar Republic. Germany is on her knees, the poor are paying for the actions of their masters in the Great War, much as they carry the wounds of their own rôles in that conflagration of the young. Things are bad and, though it sickens me to my bowels, they need The Last Laugh.
But back to the TV room. It was early on a Sunday. Silent Steve had been driven out of bed by his piles and wanted me to share in his mood, so he popped on the DVD of this silent movie, although his copy really wasn’t silent, what with a full-on orchestral score underlining the misery.
The story: at the Atlantic Hotel, the doorman is a mighty, pompous, cheery old cove who loves his job. He stands outside, carrying bags, saluting to the great and the rich, proud and filmed to look powerful in his needlessly grandiose uniform of buttons and braids. Yikes, I thought, do Germans of the 1920s love a uniform or what? Then, in torrential downpours, he fails to carry a frankly huge trunk from a carriage, gets spotted by the hotel manager and – after a night smiling freakishly at his about-to-marry niece – goes to work to find there is a new doorman. He too is resplendent, obsequious and proud, and – it lands in agonizingly long glowers from Old Doorman – the necessary one.
More yikes. This is a story of middle-aged redundancy. Well, given the Old Doorman has weirdly shaped hair and mighty whiskers, old aged dismissal. His usefulness is over. Silent Steve wept as Old Doorman was shamed by the manager, his uniform taken from him, his new position – washroom attendant – explained through layers of pantomime and the wind section taking sad to new depths. It is, be prepared, unremitting.
Then the shaming starts properly. Word gets back to his block of flats that he’s a washroom boy now. The same word then spreads through the neighbourhood and those gossips and their cackling faces are ready to belittle Ex-Old-Doorman into despair. He staggers, he slopes, he moves through them at a sluggish pace, agony caricatured over his whole body. Emil Jannings as said misery does a silently eloquent job of living out everyone’s nightmare, the moment they’re told their job is at risk. Old Jack has been there: it’s the job that’s gone, there’s no place for you, awfully sorry, here’s the minimum we can get away with giving you, now farewell…
That said, he still has a job (!), so fuck-off. It’s demeaning, certainly. Handing out small towels to ponced up rich folk after they’ve taken a dump is no-one’s dream, but, quit with the forlorn posing, eh? It’s still money. But Jannings is enjoying the stares-of-doom and glacial staggering way too much…
Unbelievably, as acknowledged by the film’s one and only title card and indeed its English-language title, there’s a happy ending. I’ll not spoil it for you, as you deserve the prize if you get through the first hour. For this will be a genuine test of your resolve: 80 solid minutes of wretchedness and no dialogue with about ten minutes of late-arriving fun.
Okay. The Last Laugh was directed by F.W. Murnau. He took the path of many terrific European directors of that time: he made his mark at home (Nosferatu, Faust), headed to Hollywood (Sunrise, 4 Devils), and died aged 41 the day after his car hit an electricity pole. The Last Laugh is full of cinematic moments that he invented or gave new prominence to: the camera floats down the hotel stairs; when Old Doorman gets his bad news it travels through a glass door; the hotel looms over him as he staggers away through puddles and rain; neighbours’ faces intermingle in a mess of jeering maws; the Old Doorman at work in the early downpour is stunningly shot; a cracking dream sequence shows the soul of the man; the contrast between the opulence of the hotel, its revolving door like a clacking cage, is presented with artistic style against the blankness and down-at-heel drabness of his home. Really. Murnau had a touch of poetry to him. Shame the plot is like a slow bullet through the chin.
And that’s that. Silent Steve was happy he’d shown me a bit of film history. Old Jack was glad to be alive. But researches along the way had sunk my temper… Emil Jannings’ Doorman was helped by a Nightwatchman played by Georg John. There’s a beauty to the relationship that is just and timeless, and in the last reel the kindness of the Nightwatchman gets repaid. But real life was rather different.
Jannings had a flirtation with America, winning the first (really, the first ever) Best Actor Academy Award in 1929 when the prize could acknowledge all of an actor’s performances in that year (for Jannings, The Way of All Flesh, which is lost, and The Last Command). Well, he was apparently the first human choice after Rin-Tin-Tin was discounted, but that’s by the by… Then things got dark: from 1933, after the Nazis seized power, Jannings supported them robustly in propaganda films, earning the honorific of Staatsschauspieler from Joseph Geobbels – “Actor of the State” in 1936. The films kept coming – and the distaste of ex colleagues like Marlene Dietrich – until Berlin was taken by the Allies.
The kindly Nightwatchman’s story was slightly different. Georg John was Jewish. He was sent to the Łódź Ghetto in 1941 where he died that November. Perhaps he was lucky, the Chełmo gassings began on the 8th December.
I’m sorry to sound unforgiving of Jannings, but knowing what he became in life somewhat colours old Jack’s perspective on the self-pity he displays in The Last Laugh. He was forty at the time of filming, bloated and made up to look 60. I can see past that to a hugely talented man taking his craft from stage to screen, much like the less prominent and less feted Georg John. But it’s hard…very hard…to look beyond what Jannings supported and what it did to John. When Jannings lost his career during post-war denazification, Georg John had already paid the ultimate price. For that, the Old Doorman deserved his shame.
So there you go. Try watching The Last Laugh knowing that.
It’s way out of copyright, so pop on over to the YouTube with some adrenaline shots and – if you can ignore the truths around it – curiosity as to what this little piece of movie excellence gave all the films that followed.