#19. The Last Laugh (1924)

The Last Laugh is a really good movie but also kinda brutal, emotionally, especially if you’re feeling kinda dejected about work-related stuff. But I’ll get to that. The Last Laugh belongs to a genre I’ve never heard of, called kammerspielfilm. The whole genre seems to be comprised of just a handful of movies, and it’s devoted to exploring the psychology of lower-middle class characters. “Chamber dramas” is a nickname I keep coming across. The movie follows a nameless doorman (Emil Jannings) at a fancy hotel who takes great pride in his work. The gaudy uniform with all its bangles, greeting guests, summoning cars. One day, on account of his age, the doorman is demoted from the hotel’s main entrance to a basement bathroom, to work henceforth as its attendant. His big lavish uniform is replaced with a sort of plainwhite smock-ish thing. This on the eve of his daughter’s wedding.

He ends up stealing the doorman’s uniform back from his boss’s office so that he can wear it to the wedding, and to the celebration thereafter, but finds, after a night of hard drinking, that it doesn’t fit so well as it once did. Nor does he stand so tall. He lumbers, slouches. He finds that one of its clasps has broken off. The folds no longer close over his chest. The former doorman stands at a 45-degree angle throughout his first shift in the men’s room. Dumbstruck and ashamed. Things get worse from there. He’s humbled without cease.

The doorman, Emil Jannings, looking and feeling illustrious before the fall.
The doorman, Emil Jannings, looking and feeling illustrious before the fall.

I’ll talk about the camerawork in a moment, because it’s amazing, but first I wanna dwell on this idea that the movie explores about the various things to which we affix our pride, our identity, these symbols we carry around that say stuff about our “status”, sure, but also about what we value, I guess, and the things we’ve allowed to shape us.

The two jobs I’ve gotten in education since I graduated from college three years ago have been full of people, adults, with whom almost every conversation tended to circle back to a particular thing that informed how they saw themselves. A lot of the time it had to do with jobs they’d held in the past. A conversation about bagels or boxing or traffic, or the drug bust in the bathroom, makes its way back to them telling a story from their time as a cop, or a soldier, or a reporter, a coach, a translator. Things they’d done or titles they’d held that now, at this later and quieter time in life, make them proud, and inform their sense of self, their worth. With some people it’s their kids, or their pets, or the fishing they did last week or the fishing trip to come and I heard a lot of stories about renovations, too, about how this or that person will be spending a long succession of blissfully chaotic weekends laboring over their new kitchen, bathroom, bedroom extension. Always something.

There was another lot, smaller but not small, for whom the go-to in conversation was how they’d been victimized. Stories of how they stood up to an oppressor. And let me be clear: I’m not talking about stories of persecution based on race, or gender, or nationality or sexuality or religion – none of the marginalized statuses that blight a big group of people, irrefutably, with disadvantage and violence. No. What these folks talked about mostly was how they were being fucked over and persecuted by the school’s administration (that amorphous entity: The Boss’s Boss), by their landlord, by their students and by the parents of their students and how they were disrespected by the cashier at Publix or the fat guy at HR, or their mechanic, or otherwise it’s Comcast or Apple or Verizon, whatever, the pool guy who says he’ll be there at noon and shows up at four. The storyteller is invariably persecuted for their intelligence. The gist of every story is, “I was too nice, so they fucked me,” or, “They didn’t like that I was honest, so they fucked me,” or, “They could tell I wasn’t buying into their bullshit, that I could see right through it, so they fucked me.”

This shot scares the shit outta me. It's the reaction of the doorman's wife when she comes to the hotel and, ashamed, finds that her husband is now a bathroom attendant.
This shot scares the shit outta me. It’s the reaction of the doorman’s wife when she comes to the hotel and, ashamed, finds that her once-respected husband is now a bathroom attendant.

And I guess my point is that while I’ve known some people like the doorman in The Last Laugh, for whom their self-worth is tied up in a very specific (often professional) status they hold or held, I think I’ve know more for whom their perceived victimhood is their triumph. Their joy comes from the idea that nobody is more miserable than they are. It’s the first thing they ever want to discuss. They start lots of sentences with, “Can you believe…?” And with, “What people don’t realize…” If you’ve just finished recounting some misfortune of your own, they won’t just sympathize – they counter it, challenge it. They say, “Hey, that’s nothing. You wanna hear some shit?”

Getting back to the camerawork. The Last Laugh showcases the camera’s agency within the story. It lurks around corners, it catapults forward with zooms, it spins and recoils and totters, distorts things, studies them. There’s one intertitle in the whole movie. It comes shortly before the end. Murnau depicts our nameless hero at his lowest point, degraded to the point of catatonia, and the camera leaves him to die in the bathroom – but then.

The movie's only intertitle, presented before the last act.
The movie’s only intertitle, presented before the last act.

The movie goes on with one more scene where we see Emil Janning’s character gorging on a lavish meal, dressed to impress, doling out cash like it’s nothing and, finally, riding off into a sunset of endless prosperity. So what’s Murnau saying here by slapping this superficial ending onto the movie and even calling it superficial?

Maybe he’s trying to prove that images are more powerful than words because, shit, even though he told me in no unclear terms that this happy ending is pure nonsense, it legit made me feel better than if the movie had ended where he claims it was supposed to. Weird.

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