You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.
In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.
Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.
Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.
The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.
The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.
This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.
Der letzte Mann
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)