What a week it’s been for movies. First off, Sundance managed at last to defy expectations and deliver a host of exceptional pictures, ranking this year’s edition the best in many years. Second, the fairly predictable Oscar nominations were finally announced, promising nothing much to get excited about except for the acting categories.
On these shores, the highlight of the week was nothing remotely contemporary. The event of the week was a rare screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). It wasn’t just an ordinary revival of a forgotten masterpiece common in culture centers and film festivals. The last Sunday screening was accompanied by a live performance from German DJ sad.sad.calzone, substituting Giuseppe Becce’s clear-cut classic score with an amalgam of progressive rock, electronica and ambiance noise.
The final outcome was rather startling; disquieting, entrancing and pensive.
“The Last Laugh most famously known by its lack of title cards; the entire film uses a fluid, highly expressive visual style in telling a seemingly simple story. Intertitles are only used in two crucial instances throughout the film, where words play a fundamental role in paving the way for the successive unfolding events.
Great German actor Emil Jannings plays an aging doorman of an ultra posh hotel. The dedicated old man takes prize from his job and uniform. With a military-like design and big, brass button, the doorman’s uniform has always earned him respect and admiration from his neighbors. He doesn’t seem to conceal it; enjoying the social position his uniform placed him in.
Although he can’t seem to notice or accept it, the doorman shows signs of old age from the very start of the film. Unable to bear the heavy weight of a luggage, he stumbles in the rain before picking up the luggage once again.
After being sheered by the hotel’s clients, he sits down and rest for few moments and have a drink. The act doesn’t go unnoticed; the next day, the unsympathetic assistant manager writes him a memo (the first of the two instances when the intertitles appear) informing him that he’s being demoted to a bathroom attendant.
Shaken and mortified, the doorman steals his old uniform and attempts to sustain his old identity. He can’t keep it for long and soon, one of the building’s tenants finds out the truth.
In a series of nightmarish dream sequences and further humiliating occurrences, we witness the rapid, excruciating downfall of the man.
Along with Robert Wiene (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ), Paul Wegener (“The Golem ) and Fritz Land (“Destiny , “Metropolis ) Murnau is one of the pioneers of the German Expressionism, a movement that sprang to prominence with film in the beginning of the 1920s, largely foreshadowing the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich.
The movement stressed an exaggerated, sharp visual style with dim cinematography, geometrically unrealistic set pieces and stories that mostly emphasizes themes of madness and betrayal; a manifestation of a variety of inner emotions through external images. The movement reflected the sense of crushing shame the German public experienced following the World War I defeat and the sanctions brought about by the Treaty of Versailles.
Always a distinguished master of the visual, the Murnau’s set is an integral part of his story, no less important than his characters. From the heightened scale of the hotel, the bustling urban city, the revolving doors in rain, a descending elevator and an eye-catching tracking shot of the lobby (shot via still camera strapped on the chest of a cameraman), Murnau carefully sets the mood of his story before he expands the psychological ambiance with subsequent visions.
Basic elements of the German Expressionism are exemplified in the oblique angles (the doorman is seen via low angles to emphasize his sense of pride) and the dream sequence, including one scene where the hotel turns into giant fiend attacking the doorman and another shot where the camera seems to be gliding aimlessly into space.
Several scholars have constantly approached the German Expressionism films from a sociological perspective as period pieces, drawing countless parallels with the reality of the time. On a closer, different inspection, the timelessness of the themes these films have tackled becomes apparent.
Film scholar Siegfried Kracauer argues in his book “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of The German Film that, although the main intention of the film is presenting a tragic tale with a sympathetic protagonist, the doorman is, in fact, responsible for his own demise. Kracauer writes that the hotel staff do actually take pity upon him, that the sense of disgrace that overtakes him is somewhat embedded in his obsession with his uniform and authority.
The theory is, without a doubt, daring and intriguing, but I can’t honestly digest it. Even if the humiliation and the suffering he undergoes principally stem from his own weakness to confront his false emasculation, the doorman remains a victim of a society, not unlike ours, which places importance on external appearances, on privilege and phony pretenses. The doorman is a product of this environment and his tragedy is universal.
The score assembled by Cologne-based sad.sad.calzone didn’t attempt to reinterpret the film as much as inject it with more emotional charge.