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Welcome to Film School in the early 1970s, where the film professors lecture, assign readings from a short list of authoritative film scholars and screen 16mm prints of renowned world classics. The only problem is that it's difficult to correlate the movies described in the texts with the ragged prints available. Assembled from whatever film scraps were available in Europe after WW2, a picture like The Bicycle Thief might be in good shape, but the original cut of Metropolis is considered long lost. The amazing Ménilmontant seems to exist only as an incoherent fragment, while Dreyer's lauded The Passion of Joan of Arc barely resembles its description in the texts, with its supposedly legendary main performance a jumble of jump cuts. Exemplary film restorations have resurrected wonderful, original versions of all of these titles in the last few decades. Because the original Joan of Arc was thought to be lost, Dreyer recut the version we saw from alternate takes, many of them inferior. But a perfect original copy was found in a Norwegian mental hospital!
The same basic thing happened with F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, a 1924 German film considered the best example of German Expressionism. In film school we read about Murnau's daring photographic techniques and direction that eliminated the need for text inter-titles. But the film we saw had ragged continuity and many inter-titles, making us doubt whether the scholar-author knew what he was talking about. We had to take The Last Laugh's importance on faith. In film criticism, once one stops forming opinions independently, you might as well put your brain up on a shelf.
Kino's new Restored Deluxe Edition of The Last Laugh is another major restoration by Italian and German archives under the direction of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, the entity that brought us the remarkable Fritz Lang restorations like Metropolis, Spies and Woman in the Moon. And after 35 years and at least five viewings of the feature, I can say I've finally seen the qualities the experts were talking about.
The Last Laugh is the story of a small man with a universal problem. He's a hotel doorman at retirement age. He looks magnificent in his uniform greatcoat, greeting guests, opening doors and summoning bellboys. Famed actor Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) plays the doorman as a fellow defined by his role, proud of his impressive uniform. He cultivates a magnificent beard.
But the hotel manager sees the doorman's failings. He looks fine, but tires easily and comes into the lobby to rest and take a drink while guests arrive. He often needs to get large trunks down from the tops of taxis, and just can't handle the exertion.
The plot barely needs describing. The doorman's curt dismissal utterly destroys him. Without his greatcoat he's just a stooped little man of no importance whatsoever. The manager gives him a demeaning job as a washroom attendant. Returning to his tiny apartment is humiliating. He can't tell his niece of his misfortune, as she's just about to marry. Fixated on the uniform, the ex-doorman sneaks back in to the hotel, to steal back his beloved uniform.
Murnau's camera defies all the expectations of normal silent filmmaking in 1924. It descends to the hotel lobby in a fast elevator and trucks madly through the crowds of people, all the way to the street. For some shots the camera is tied to the operator's chest. Murnau plans every shot to contrast the doorman's proud position with his later, diminished status. Jannings' acting is stylized as well, but nothing about his performance is overwrought. He looks straight and strong on the job, as if the coat were holding him up. Without it he hunches over and moves slowly, self-consciously. He's too ashamed to function normally.
The set designs by Edgar G. Ulmer are also remarkable. The enormous hotel set has a forced perspective city backdrop, with cars that shrink in size until they're no bigger than toys. Another angle on the street -- seen perhaps in less than six or seven minutes' worth of footage, is a giant construction with faĉades several stories tall, filled with nighttime traffic. The old man's apartment block is a featureless concrete mass with housewives leaning out the windows in search of gossip ... that the old man is afraid will be about him.
Two scenes really stand out. The doorman has a daydream of superhuman strength, lifting with ease luggage that a score of bellboys can't budge. Murnau films the scene with a diffraction grating on the lens, smearing the image along diagonal planes. Later on, the humiliated man runs in panic from his home. Murnau makes it look as if his own apartment building is tilting forward, as if to crush him. It's a more refined version of an effect in Murnau's own Phantom from two years before. The difference between the two movies is that Phantom is an mostly ordinary-looking movie with regular infusions of strange visuals that have an intellectual, symbolic relationship to the story. In The Last Laugh, the entire film is energized by a camera that adds its comment to each scene and each angle. When the "special effects" occur, they're used for emotional emphasis.
The last section of the movie is the famous "Last Laugh" scene. The film's logical finish occurs almost ten minutes earlier, and it's as bleak as an ending can possibly be. After a fast fade, Murnau returns for an interesting upbeat coda -- that goes on seemingly forever. The old man is suddenly the happiest, richest man in Berlin, arriving at the hotel to partake of an enormous feast. He brings his old buddy, the night watchman (Georg John) along with him. The ending has the feeling of an American silent comedy, and was clearly invented to lift viewers' spirits. Rather than compromise the purity of what is basically a tragedy, Murnau's gives the audience what they want, an epilogue in an entirely different mood and style and clearly an item separate from the movie proper. Everybody comes out happy.
Kino's Restored Deluxe Edition of The Last Laugh is a two-disc set with extras that satisfy every possible curiosity about the film. The research and original materials on view are extremely impressive.
The transfer is an enormous improvement on earlier version. A frame is missing here and there but the show is otherwise in fine condition. Giuseppe Becce's beautiful original score is performed by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. It's recorded in 5.1 stereo surround. The movie is finally an intact masterpiece that reflects the praise of critics who saw it when new.
The second disc contains the Unrestored Export Version of the film produced by David Shepard. It has its own music score and provides an immediate comparison with the restored original. A forty-minute German docu called The Making of The Last Laugh goes into the movie's history in great detail, with plenty of photos of the filming and the construction of the massive sets.
Three cameras rolled to produce separate negatives for distribution in different regions -- adequate duping stocks just didn't exist in 1924. The docu presents many shot-by-shot comparisons of three discrete versions. Murnau's primary German version is always carefully composed, with the best action chosen. The other two angles are often wider and less discerning about what is shown. The difference is immediately apparent. A key scene of the old man being fired is precise in Murnau's preferred version, and much less interesting in the others. Some of the most important camera effects discussed in the critical literature don't appear in the export versions.
In the original, the inter-titles are all concentrated at the very beginning, and at the start of the comedy epilogue. Kino includes the German originals as a separate extra, along with an extensive image gallery. Package designer Bret Wood has chosen a terrific color poster illustration for Kino's cover.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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