The Last Laugh

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by Michael Hathaway

The Last Laugh (German: Der Letzte Mann) was a German silent film produced in 1924 during the era of the Weimar Republic. The film was directed by F. W. Murnau, an influential director of silent expressionist films and one of the most acclaimed German filmmakers of the 1920's. Some of Murnau's other famous works include Nosferatu, Faust, and Sunrise. The Last Laugh, which featured Emil Jannings in the lead role, was adapted from a screenplay by Carl Meyer, a prominent writer whose other screenplays include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Haunted Castle, and Sunrise.

A touchstone of modernist cinema, The Last Laugh is a remarkable film for many reasons, including its incorporation of newly developing cinematography techniques and its near lack of intertitles. The film considers the effects of modernity on different generations and social strata.

Plot Summary

In the first scene of the film, we meet the Doorman, an old, robust fellow who embodies the German-Prussian of the World War I generation, complete with imperial-style facial hair. The Doorman struggles to assist patrons of the hotel with their heavy baggage. After taking a break from his duties to ease an aching back, the Doorman returns to his post outside the hotel, where he proudly greets patrons in his elegant uniform.

Upon returning home to a dilapidated apartment complex, the Doorman is greeted with profound respect and admiration by the tenement's lower-class inhabitants. On his way to work the next morning, the Doorman stands up for a child who has been bullied, showing himself to be something of an authority figure in the apartment complex.

Having arrived at the hotel, the Doorman is shocked to realize that he has been replaced by a much younger, clean-shaven man. The Doorman’s replacement regards his predecessor with arrogant indifference, and the original Doorman learns of his demotion from his boss. Incapable of handling his disbelief, the Doorman attempts to lift a heavy piece of luggage over his head, only to find that, once again, he is not strong enough. His face full of resignation, the Doorman collapses. Meanwhile,the Doorman’s replacement goes about his business, unloading heavy luggage with ease.

Hapless and depressed, the Doorman is given a new white uniform for his new position: bathroom attendant. Desperate to keep his demotion from the tenement’s inhabitants, he steals into the hotel in the middle of the night and retrieves his old uniform. Returning home to a wedding celebration taking place in the tenement, the Doorman gets extremely drunk, falls asleep, and dreams of lifting heavy luggage over his head with one arm.

The next morning, hungover and dejected, the Doorman dons his new white uniform and takes his place in the restroom, courtesy towel in hand. Hoping to surprise the Doorman, a lady from his apartment complex has brought a parcel to give him. However, upon seeing a different man dressed up in the doorman’s uniform, she becomes confused and seeks out the original one. Realizing the Doorman’s horrible secret, the lady runs back to the apartment complex to spread the gossip. The Doorman’s neighbors find the news hilarious, and relentlessly mock him when he returns home.

Facing the mockery of his previously admiring neighbors, the Doorman has reached a new low. He spends the night in the hotel bathroom, incapable of consoling himself. The only kindness he receives is from a fellow nightwatchman, who gives his coat to the Doorman for warmth. Though this may have been a fit end for a tragic story, the only intertitle of the film is presented, declaring that the author of the tale feels sorry for the Doorman, and wishes to grant him a happy ending, though he admits that such an ending would never occur in reality. In a farcical turn of events, we find that an extraordinarily rich man has died and donated all of his remaining money to the Doorman. In the last scene of the film, the Doorman is seen feasting on an endless gourmet dinner at the very hotel that previously demoted him--a dinner that he enjoys with the night watchman who showed him kindness in the restroom. When he finally leaves the hotel, he greets a procession of hotel workers and other people, to whom he doles out free cash at whim.

Cultural Significance of the Work

The Last Laugh is, at its core, a modernist film--that is, it portrays many of the most pressing themes and issues that faced the rapidly evolving post-World War I society in Germany during the 1920‘s. Providing a vivid picture of the generational tension between pre-war German culture and the more capitalistic culture of the younger Weimar generation, the film highlights important cultural shifts regarding capitalism and generational values.

In her essay, “Who Gets the Last Laugh: Old Age and Generational Change in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh,” Sabine Hake argues that the Doorman dramatically represents the frustrations felt by Germans who had lived through World War I; they were able to sympathize with the Doorman's plight and, in the process, better understand their own.[1] While these observations are certainly true, they raise a different problem: to what extent could the younger generation, the one that was increasingly determining Weimar culture, sympathize with such a figure? 

The Last Laugh further articulates modernist themes when it portrays the distinct realms of the upper class and lower class, depicted in the film as the hotel and the apartment complex. At times, the film draws attention to the new and interesting borders created by the glass windows and revolving doors of high-end hotels, with characters like the Doorman and his replacement keeping watch and making sure that only the appropriate clientele are allowed inside.[2]As Sabine Hake argues, The Last Laugh can be seen as Murnau’s first attempt to explore the dynamics of identity and space in the modern metropolis (Hake 119).

That these two realms are so distinct, but that the Doorman and his regal uniform somehow bridge the gap between them, calls attention to the particular situation in which characters like Murnau’s protagonist found themselves: “Thus the film advances, however ironically, the authoritarian credo that the magic spell of authority protects society from decomposition” (Kracauer, 100). Without the symbol of the Doorman’s uniform, the (albeit weak) connection to the upper class and a sense of order are destroyed, leaving the two classes entirely separate with no hope of a bridge between them. (Except for, of course, the Doorman’s welcoming of the night watchman to his feast, though this perhaps adds to the farcical notion that the upper class and the lower class can commune together.) In this way, the film articulates a certain crisis of the authority that Germans of the Weimar era were experiencing. With the introduction of a radically different system of government and a rapid influx of capitalistic values, distinct generations had varying amounts of difficulty dealing with such significant changes--a situation which is expressively presented in The Last Laugh, allowing the film to function as a kind of catharsis for the older, more disenfranchised generations of the Weimar era.

  1. Sabine Hake, "Who Gets the Last Laugh?: Old Age and Generational Change in F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh," in Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era,ed. Noah Isenberg (New York: Columbia UP, 2009), 115.
  2. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1947), 100.
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