Silent Sunday: The Last Laugh (1924)

Concluding our mini Murnau fest (we’ll be doing more of him in future outbreaks of Silent Sunday), I have to say that, unfortunately, I still don’t really get this. Understandably famous for its unprecedented use of mobile camerawork, its minimisation of intertitles (although it’s not true and never was that it contains none at all), and its infamously absurd happy ending, I just don’t get the tragedy in the film’s basic situation, and I never have since I first saw this back in my UNSW days (the School of Theatre and Film had a video library of foreign films taped off SBS from the 80s; somehow I managed to borrow their tape of this one). Essentially, this is the story of an old hotel doorman who gets busted down to being the men’s washroom attendant, and whose pride won’t let him admit this fact to any of his family or his neighbours, until in the notorious climax he improbably inherits a vast fortune. (Apparently UFA thought the film was too much of a downer and wanted a happy ending attached before they’d release it; Murnau obliged with the most deliberately silly thing he could think of.) Ebert calls it “improbable and unsatisfying”, which are the words I’d use to describe the rest of the film. Lotte Eisner said it was one of those films you only get if—like the Germans of that period—you view the uniform you work in as all-important, higher than God king and country. And I know people like that exist, so I appreciate a bit better that the old man defines himself by his doorman’s job. (So, evidently, does the chap who replaces him.) I’ve never been one of those people, though, so maybe that’s why I’ve never bought The Last Laugh. I can appreciate the technical innovation and the storytelling with almost no intertitles, but not the story these things are used to serve. Maybe it’s just me.

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