Thursday, August 19, 2004
I can't believe I almost missed one of the best German silent films I've ever seen last night! It was the third feature film in Goethe Institut's Movies Live and last night was another of Friedrich Murnau's work which, in my opinion, is the bestest silent film I've seen so far. The Last Laugh (1924) is one the best if not the best study of expressionist film in the whole history of modern cinema which got Hollywood to first notice him (Faust afforded him his first Directorial job in Tinseltown a couple of years later). Emil Jannings has put up an outstanding performance as an aging hotel doorman who takes much pride in his dapper uniform. The classy hotel uniform also affords him a lot of respect from his neighbors from their home at the other side of the tracks as old ladies would inavariably giggle and wave to him, men would stand back and tip their hats to him, and kids look up to him as a sort of benevolent authority figure. Unfortunately due to his old age he was unable to perform some of his duties with regards to lifting the baggage arriving guests have with them, the Hotel Manager demoted him the next day to being a lowly lavatory attendant. More tragically his daughter was set to get married on the same day he was stripped of his uniform. Thinking he couldn't go home without his doorman's uniform, and thus giving his daughter some bad news on the happiest day of her life, he snuck inside the Hotel Manager's office and stole the uniform from the closet. When the wedding guests who have been scanning the entrance points of their community saw him, they immediately welcomed him to the party. The wedding celebration was a success with brandy and cigars flowing freely among the drunken guests partying until the wee hours of the night. And while in a drunken stupor, the doorman dreamed of lifting with one hand a big wooden trunk that six men were unable to lift. Woken up from his slumber he stumbles off to work still groggy from the apparent lack of sleep only to have rude awakening when he discovers that he's been replaced by a younger, more dashing doorman. He hides his uniform in a public depository and goes to work in the lavatory located at the bottom of the hotel. Just then a neighbor decides to surprise him by bringing him lunch got surprised herself when she discovered the truth. She runs back home and reveals everything to the doorman's daughter. Meanwhile the nosy neighbors eavesdrop on the conversations behind closed doors and quickly spread the news throughout the whole community. When the doorman arrives back home he is confronted by his daughter and son-in-law and turns him away for fear of what the neighbors would say. Defeated, he trudged back to the hotel and turns over the uniform to the old nightwatchman who returns it to its rightful place. Then he goes down to the lavatory and sits on a chair while the night watchman takes pity on him and covers him with his coat. While the story should have ended here, the author takes pity on the doorman and writes another ending. The doorman inherits millions of deutschmarks from an eccentric millionaire who has stipulated in his will that the person in whose arms he dies stands to inherit his entire fortune. The doorman shares his wealth with his friend, the old nightwatchman, who goes on a shopping spree before treating him to a buffet treat at the hotel. Then he goes down to the lavatory and accommodates the new lavatory attendant while teaching the lavatory users to be kind and give the appropriate tip for services rendered. And just before the two friends left the hotel, the once poor doorman generously gives tips to all the employees of the hotel and even welcomes a beggar asking alms to join them in their carriage before driving off.
Like I've mentioned before this film stands above the rest not only because it is a fine example of German Expressionism but also because of the deliberate lack of dialogue (or title cards) unlike other silent movies. The whole film is rife with symbolisms and the heightened use of emotions and mise-en-scène. Director Friedrich Murnau also experimented for the first time with the moving camera at a time when cameras are rigidly set in one place with the help of a tripod, he set the camera into a basket mounted on rails, on bicycles, on the chief cameraman's stomach, attached to a scaffolding, or on a custom built rubber-wheeled trolley (you can read more about it here). A technique that broke the mold of traditional film making and bringing it the next level of camera works. It's also interesting to note that his pioneering imagery of a camera shot passing through the glass inspired the same technique used in the opening of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). Despite his heavy make-up, lead actor Emil Jannings also comes through with his best acting job I've seen to date portraying an aging porter (when he's barely entered middle age). He effectively conveyed his character's thoughts and emotions mostly through his eyes than through body language (a rare thespic ability that reminds me of what actor Tobey Maguire did in his most recent works). With such fine acting as this there's little wonder how he went on to win the very first Best Actor trophy in the history of the Academy Awards some years later. The whole movie was excellently accompanied with the appropriate music that's a mixture of big band and ska that's both playful and tragic as it was performed by SYZYGY (I hope that they would perform again in the next installments). I'm also hoping to see all of Emil Jannings' movies on the big screen in the coming German Silent Film festivals ahead but for the meantime I'm going to see what I can do to acquire this classic movie's DVD.