“You have to have seen how F.W. Murnau succeeds in The last Laugh (1924) in telling the moving story of a simple doorman at the classy Hotel Atlantic without any dialogue or title screens,” says our season’s brochure. No title screens? Actually there is one. Because if Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund were second to none when it came to using and moving a camera, they did have to report to the UFA studios. And the studios wanted a happy ending.
I should probably give a spoiler alert here. If you are a film lover, you know what the movie is about and how it ends. But if you simply took our word for it and booked your tickets for Thursday 29.09. because “you have to have seen” The last Laugh, you may want to close this page and wait for the next blog entry. Although I didn’t know what I’m about to tell you until I googled the movie and it made me want to see it even more. And it will probably be mentioned in the evening programme anyway.
The old doorman of the fancy Atlantic Hotel is stripped of his uniform and demoted to restroom attendant. That’s about all there is to know about the “plot”. The movie left its mark not because of the screenplay (written by Carl Mayer) but because of the way it documents the doorman’s fall from privilege using innovative camera movements and expressionist elements, like exaggerated shadow effects. And while Murnau was happy to leave the poor old man in the restroom until the end of his life, it seems that someone did not deem it appropriate.
The movie comes to a close when the first and only printed intertitle appears, like a written apology from Murnau. “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” Okay, I’m not going to give away the ending. But believe me: improbable is the word. According to Alyssa Katz, “film historians believe it was the result of pressure from the UFA studios, while [Emil] Jannings [who plays the doorman, author’s note] claimed in his autobiography that he had personally requested a new ending.” Does it matter? Murnau may not have given the world the most genuine film ending but all the critics agree that he did give cinema a language of its own.