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The portly old man (Emil Jannings) doesn't have much in life. He leads a lonely existence, occasionally lightened up with the grace and friendship of his neighbors. There's one thing that he believes not only solidifies his existence, but gives him a status in life that makes him proud: He's the doorman at a prestigious hotel. He considers his snazzy uniform to be the reflection of his humanity, and feels worthless without it. One night, when his advancing age causes him some pain after some hard hours of work, he decides to take a bit of rest. Unfortunately, this happens to be the moment when the hotel's pompous manager notices him.
In a shocking turn of events, shocking for him at least, he's stripped of his doorman uniform and given a job more suitable for his age. This destroys him, and he steals his old uniform solely so he can pretend to still have his "esteemed" status amongst his neighbors. The ruse doesn't last long, since one of the neighbors becomes witness to his lowlier line of work and of course immediately shares the gossip with the neighborhood. The ridicule that the old man encounters upon coming back home sets him on a path of self-ruin. But is there a happy coincidence around the corner?
F. W. Marnau, one of the most groundbreaking directors of the silent era, had a unique ability to express even the most complex emotions via visuals alone. He was a trailblazer when it came to experimenting with camera movement and optical effects that provided an otherworldly look that embraced the German expressionism movement that he was solidly a part of. The Last Laugh is no exception. Apart from a strategically placed and fairly playful confessional from Murnau, the film is devoid of any title cards used in silent film in lieu of dialogue and exposition.
The old man's fears and depression regarding his loss of "status" is always made clear and dramatically potent with clever camera moves and effects. Consider a shot that superimposes images of many of his neighbors laughing cruelly at his situation. The pain that this causes the old man becomes immediately palpable. They might as well have all taken turns stabbing him in the heart.
The 2K restoration of the German version, the longest amongst the film's many available cuts, was culled together from five separate film prints. Considering this situation, the fact that we get such a clear picture with such detail, with minimal scratches and blemishes, is some sort of a miracle. This is as clear as this great silent classic will ever look.
We get to choose between two accompanying musical tracks, both presented in lossless LPCM 2.0: A brand-new score by The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1924 score by Guiseppe Becce. I personally prefer the Berklee version, since it's livelier and finds clever ways of introducing sound effects via musical instruments. Either way, the tracks are clean and lively.
DVD of Export Version: This version is presented unrestored, so it looks rough, but it's an important piece for film history buffs.
Commentary by Noah Isenberg: The film historian gives great shot-by-shot insight into the film's production and its influential status.
Making of The Last Laugh: This 40-minute documentary goes deep into the film's production and restoration process.
Deeply touching and empathetic, The Last Laugh, along with Sunrise, is a testament of Murnau's distinct ability to communicate deep human emotion with visuals alone. He was taken too early from us, but his amazing body of work speaks for itself.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com