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|See "The Last Laugh" -- You Have No Excuse Not To Posted on 07/22/2002.
Last night I viewed The Last Laugh (rent from GreenCine, buy from Amazon) , F.W. Murnau's 1924 masterwork of German Expressionist cinema, and a landmark in the technology, formalism, and storytelling of film.
Here's the entire plot: Due to onsetting frailty as a consequence of age, a man is removed from his work as a hotel doorman, his daughter gets married, and he ends up as a washroom attendant, sad and alone. (Well, there is a bizarre epilogue involving the man's improbable claiming of a massive inheritance, but the movie is really over before then.)
The film's technological stamp has largely to do with cinematographer Karl Freund's work with the "unchained camera," allowing camera movement (dollies, crane shots, etc.) at the time unparalleled. There's also the amazing exterior sets, both the street in front of hotel, and the courtyard where the man lives, which are in fact massive soundstages.
More importantly is how the technology allowed the progressing of cinematic language. By unchaining the camera, Murnau was able to further the Expressionistic qualities of making the internal external, particularly in the subjective shots when the man is drunk. Though old hat by now, such effects had never been seen before, and their development immensely increased the vocabulary with which filmmakers could speak.
But, the crowning achievement of all of this technology and formalism is how it serves the story. And, as the plot outline above demonstrated, what a simple story. A man's decline. Though only about one person (or perhaps because of it), the tale resonates with a universality utterly lacking in any contemporary work. Watching it, I thought of this comment by filmmaker and critic Eric Rohmer, posted at Bellona Times:
I believe more and more what I wrote in my last article, that is, that cinema has more to fear from its own clichés than from those of the other arts. Right now, I despise, I hate, cinephile madness, cinephile culture. In "Le Celluloid et le marbre" I said that it was very good to be a pure cinephile, to have no culture, to be cultivated only by the cinema. Unfortunately, it has happened: There now are people whose culture is limited to the world of film, who think only through film, and when they make films, their films contain beings who exist only through film, whether the reminiscence of old films or the people in the profession. The number of short films by novices who in one way or another show only filmmakers is terrifying! I think that there are other things in the world besides film and, conversely, that film feeds on things that exist outside it. I would even say that film is the art that can feed on itself the least. It is certainly less dangerous for the other arts.
Perhaps it's inevitable due to the overwhelming success of the medium of film. But it's sad, because the kind of honesty, simplicity, and creativity that drove great filmmakers like Murnau seems all but gone. Films rarely feel like they have any *relevance* whatsoever to their audiences; instead, they're simply spectacles designed to while away a couple of hours.
Anyway, screen "The Last Laugh," and let me know what you think of it. It's not perfect (Emil Jannings' "expressionistic" acting tends towards a hamminess that would shame Al Pacino), but it *is* essential.
Other articles on "The Last Laugh"
Notes from The Criterion Collection
"Expressionism and Reflection in Murnau's 'The Last Laugh'"
Good overview of the film
Reviews of "The Last Laugh" and "Faust" on DVD
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