DPAC’s Classic 100: The Last Laugh
Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, September 4, 2012
“The Classic 100” at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center will begin Tuesday with “The Last Laugh (Der Ietzte Mann),” a 1924 silent film directed by German director F.W. Murnau. A live score will accompany the film screening with a piano performance by a student in the music department.
In this film, a proud but aging doorman endures a humiliating demotion and has no choice but to sleep in his workplace. Only the night watchman gives him any pity, as the rest of the doorman’s friends and family rebuke him. Even though the doorman’s fate seems cruel, the finale gratifies with a delicious twist. The film also provides a charming look into German life, the domestic joys and social norms that defined Germany in the 1920s.
“The Last Laugh” lives on for its significant position in filmmaking history. It was one of the first films to use dynamic camera angles. The camera bobbed in and out of rooms, popped close to character’s face as they emoted and darted out again for a full action shot. French filmmaker Marcel Carnelater said, “The camera … glides, rises, zooms or weaves where the story takes it. It is no longer fixed, but takes part in the action and becomes a character in the drama.” Murnau also barely used any intertitles, placards inscribed with dialogue or narration, which placed even more importance on the actors’ talent to convey the story.
The film stars one of Hollywood’s patriarchs, German-Austrian actor Emil Jannings. He was the first actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor and the first to be presented an Oscar. Jannings plays the doorman with perfect bumbling determination. He takes evident pride in his position as he preens in his ornate uniform and evokes a sort of German Jeeves. The doorman’s entire identity depends on his appearance, especially among his neighbors, so he is naturally crushed when he descends to a washroom attendant.
Silent films may seem simple in the way the characters move about the set accompanied by instrumental music. The black and white faces mime fear, joy, sorrow and evil with almost laughable elasticity. But they are also mysterious and open to the audience’s interpretation. Contemporary movies apply heavy doses of sensory overload (ahem, “Transformers”) and leave little to the imagination.
Silent films, however, project shadows on a screen and characters grow larger than life through subtle gestures and looks. Drama arises naturally as the audience tries to guess the true thoughts and intentions of the characters. The result in “The Last Laugh” is engaged enchantment.
Lotte Eisner, a turn-of-the-century French-German film critic, said “[The Last Laugh] is preeminently a German tragedy, and can only be understood in a country where uniform is king, not to say god.” It is not hard to imagine, however, how Americans can relate to the doorman’s preoccupation with status. Jannings endears the audience to the doorman’s sterling work ethic and optimistic nature. “The Last Laugh” touches the heart and arouses an outcry for justice for the doorman.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at firstname.lastname@example.org
What: “The Last Laugh”
When: 8p.m. Tuesday
How Much: Free with student ID
Learn More: www.performingarts.nd.edu