The Last Laugh is a true silent film. It has only one title card, and it is put in as a joke. Emil Jannings (who later won the very first Oscar, became a Nazi and was burned alive in Inglourious Basterds) does an excellent acting job, but F. W. Murnau’s camerawork is the star.
The technique was called Entfesselte Kamera (Unchained camera technique). Unlike the heavy, static cameras of the sound age, Muranu’s camera moves, tracks, pans, tilts, zooms and even literally floats.
Or, rather, Karl Freund’s camera. The famed German cinematographer later worked on Metropolis with Fritz Lang and essentially co-directed Dracula with Tod Browning.
The Last Laugh tells us of a doorman at a posh Berlin hotel. He parades around in front in his military-style uniform, as though he were one of the dignitaries inside. He certainly seems to be the toast of his working-class friends. But he is demoted for being “old and weak” and is given a job as a bathroom attendant. He steals back his own uniform so his neighbors can remain impressed, but the ruse only works for one night. He collapses in the bathroom corner, exhausted and disgraced.
Finally, the first title:
a sad ending, but not exactly unexpected. However, a twist:
The next scene shows a newspaper article, detailing how our protagonist accidentally inherited a fortune. He is now waited on at that same hotel, and treats all the employees with generosity and kindness.
The happy Hollywood ending is as out of place with the rest of the film as the sarcastic titles are.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.