The Last Laugh represents German expressionism's most mature form. Murnau strove for a carefully controlled brand of expressionism that he used to reflect the emotional state of the leading character. As a result, while The Last Laugh does contain spasms of twisted architecture and malevolent shadows, Murnau creates a literal world that is also expressive. In part, Murnau achieves this mix thanks to the remarkably fluid camerawork of Karl Freund who freed the camera from its rigid base and allowed it to glide forward and around the action. For example, to film the movie's first scene, Freund strapped the camera to his chest, sat on a bicycle, rode an elevator down to a hotel lobby, and then rolled forth, out of the elevator, across the lobby to the revolving front door -- and then out to the street. Moving camera shots since then have far eclipsed this shot in duration, but in 1924, The Last Laugh's camerawork was innovative and influential. Freund had freed the camera from its tripod and opened up a new way for filmmakers to look at the world. Accordingly, Murnau tells his story (from a screenplay by frequent collaborator Carl Mayer) without any title cards, save one instance near the movie's end.
The Last Laugh focuses on a hotel doorman played by Emil Jannings. As he walks home in the evening, still clad in the uniform of his profession, men tip their hats, and ladies nod and smile. The doorman eats up the attention. His journey home each night (and the reaction it elicits) fills him with pride, and it also instills a sense of pride in the neighborhood. But the doorman is getting old and his age occasionally shows, as when he staggers under the weight of a trunk. The hotel manager watches as the doorman nearly loses control of the trunk and the next day calls for him. When the doorman enters the manager's office, the manager pats him on the back, hands him a letter, and turns back to his work. What follows is one of the most remarkable scenes in the movie. First, the doorman must search his pockets for his glasses. He methodically removes them from their case and puts them on, and then he reads the letter and discovers he is being relieved of his duties as doorman: "In consideration of your long service with us, we have found another position for you by arranging for our oldest employee to be admitted to a home, so from to-day you will take over his duties."
Immediately, his body contorts, his shoulder hunch forward submissively, his face twitches. Jannings' acting becomes expressionistic as he depicts the doorman's trauma. Now the doorman must relinquish his uniform, so a clerk bodily removes it from the near catatonic doorman. The doorman, however, knows he can't go home without the uniform. So later he steals it and therefore establishes the deception in his neighborhood that nothing has changed. But when a well-meaning busy body visits him at work on his daughter's wedding day, the doorman's ruse is discovered. News of the doorman's descent to rank of washroom attendant is shouted from window to window throughout his neighborhood. Everyone who once showed him respect now only shows him scorn.
The Last Laugh is not always an easy movie for contemporary audiences to appreciate. Jannings' acting far out distances Murnau's filmmaking technique in terms of expressionism, creating an imbalance that threatens to undermine the story's credibility. However, The Last Laugh remains one of the great enduring classics of silent cinema due to Karl Freund's assured camerawork and the marvelous set designs of Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig.
Kino's new DVD of The Last Laugh would have greatly benefited from liner notes or audio commentary. This material would have helped audiences place the movie in its historical and thematic context. Without notes or commentary, the movie seems bare and even somewhat fragile, but Kino's disc is still impressive. It includes a wonderful new score by Timothy Brock that is performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. And the video transfer was supplied from a 35mm negative in remarkably good condition.
After the great success of The Last Laugh, Murnau earned increased creative freedom on his next productions for UFA. Significantly, the studio also provided Murnau with the monetary backing to do almost anything he wanted. Murnau responded by choosing to film one of the classic German stories, Faust. But Murnau had more in mind than just filming Goethe's classic tale. Working with screenwriter Hans Kyser, Murnau cobbled together the legend of Faust using bits of Marlowe and Gounod and German folk legends. Precisely because of this approach to Faust, contemporary German audiences reacted in outrage. It wasn't the Faust they expected. One of the great historians of German silent cinema Siegried Kracauer said, Faust "misrepresented, if not ignored, all significant motives inherent in its subject matter. The metaphysical conflict between good and evil was thoroughly vulgarized." However, Lotte Eisner wrote (in The Haunted Screen), the film "starts with the most remarkable and poignant image the German chiaroscuro ever created. The chaotic destiny of the opening shot, the light drawing in the mist, the rays beaming through the opaque air, the visual fugue which diapasons round the heavens, are breathtaking." Both writers were onto something. In Murnau's Faust the struggle between the devil and Faust never becomes particularly complex or profound, but at the same time, Murnau imbues the proceedings with truly astonishing imagery. French New Wave director Eric Rohmer wrote a book-length study of Faust where he argued that "Murnau was able to mobilize all those forces which guaranteed him complete control of the film's space. Every formal element--the faces and bodies of the actors, objects, landscape, and such natural phenomena as snow, light, fire, and clouds--have been created or recreated with an exact knowledge of their visual effect. Never has a film left so little to chance."
Emil Jannings stars as Mephisto, a winged demon who longs to claim the world as his own. He enters a bargain with an angel: "If thou canst destroy what is divine in Faust," says the angel, "the earth is thine!" Mephisto spreads his wings over the earth and sets loose a plague. Soon afterwards, as villagers begin dropping dead, Faust toils in his laboratory, searching for a cure for the plague, but after a woman dies as he tries to help her, he loses his faith and burns his books--including his Bible. Mephisto knows an opening when he see it and descends on Faust, promising to stop the plague if Faust will renounce God. When Mephisto offers a one-day trial pact, Faust finds the temptation too strong to resist, so he agrees. And thus begins Faust's battle to hold onto his own soul.
Most critical opinion of Faust tends to agree that the movie bogs down in its lengthy middle section where Mephisto restores Faust's youth and Faust woos a beautiful, innocent maiden named Gretchen. But once the love of Faust and Gretchen goes awry, the movie settles into a horrifying depiction of hypocrisy. Gretechen's community turns against her after it becomes known that she had a love affair with Faust. The community denies Gretchen and her child harbor during a harsh winter, and then she is charged with murder after her child dies. (Lilian Gish was originally set to play Gretchen, but she dropped out of the project when Murnau refused to use her own photographer.)
While the drama of Faust isn't always effective or even coherent, the images remain impressive in their epic-scale surrealistic grandeur. We're left with scenes such as Mephisto holding forth a parchment as flashes of burning writing appear; Faust and Mephisto flying over the countryside on Mephisto's cloak; Gretchen discovering the frozen corpse of her baby, with her subsequent screams soaring across the snow-covered mountains; a funeral pyre blazing as villagers watch; an angel contronting Mephisto in heaven, accompanied by clouds and rays of light; these scenes (and many others) carry an astonishing cumulative impact. Faust is indeed flawed--but one can only wish all masterpieces were so visually compelling.
Kino International has now released Faust on DVD in a superb presentation digitally mastered from 35mm archive materials. Timothy Brock has composed and conducted an evocative and stirring musical score that is performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. And the disc includes a gallery of rare production stills that recount the making of Faust.
The Last Laugh and Faust are now available on DVD from Kino International. The Last Laugh has been digitally mastered from a 35mm negative and Faust has been digitally mastered from 35mm archive materials. Both discs feature music composed and conducted by Timothy Brock and performed by the Olympia Chamber Orhestra. Both discs were produced for video by David Shepard. In addition, both discs include photo galleries. Suggested retail price: $29.95. Both films are also available on VHS (without the DVD extras) for $24.95. For more information, check out Kino Web site.