There is a direct line from this 1924 silent masterpiece to 1948’s The Bicycle Thief to 2008’s woefully underrated The Promotion. Though very different in eras and styles, these are films that understand the human curse of employment – how the need to earn a living can distort our values, our relationships, our very sense of ourselves.
The Last Laugh stars Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman whose job, however lowly, is his pride and joy. He’s a walrus of a man and he wears his uniform – a lavish getup made of tassels and embroidery and carefully polished buttons – as if it were a decorated military suit of the highest order. Leaving for work each day, he gives his neighbors a hearty salute – always respectfully returned – as if he was headed off to war.
Then, because he dared to briefly rest after lugging a huge trunk off of a carriage, the doorman is demoted – sent to offer hand towels to gentlemen in the hotel’s basement bathroom. He’s not only humiliated – he’s crushed, and the rest of the movie charts his pathetic attempts to conceal his lowered status from his neighbors and family.
Director F.W. Murnau – the silent master of Nosferatu and Sunrise – makes this very human, personal story dazzlingly cinematic without betraying the “common” setting. The revolving door of the hotel becomes an ingenious, dynamic framing device, and indeed doors in general often contextualize the action. Jannings is frequently seen through the glass panel of one door or another – trapped by the very things that used to be his source of self-esteem.
Because of Murnau’s technical artistry – he again makes beautiful use of superimposed imagery, which has become something of a lost art form – the only element that requires a calibration of our modern, moviegoing sensibilities is Jannings. He gives not only an exaggerated, “silent” performance, in which gestures and facial expressions make up for a lack of dialogue (and even, in the case here, a lack of title cards). He’s so big and large – in every way – he seems to be performing for an opera.
Still, there are touches, such as the way he reflexively stoops when his uniform is removed, that can pierce a hardened heart.