Der letzte Mann (1924)

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.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

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.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
Download link
Year: 1924
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)

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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

 

1927 was a pivotal year in the history of film. A pivotal year, and also a great year.

The roaring twenties were still roaring and money was aplenty. For the past 15 years or so, the making of feature films had seen a rapid development from an unwieldy curiosity into a full-fledged art form. Not only had the use of angles and cutting improved vastly, but the cameras themselves were much more advanced and also more light-weight, allowing for shots that seem modern even today.

Artistically, Hollywood and Europe had gone in separate directions. Hollywood was producing masterworks in the adventure genre with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. In Germany, a very different style had developed, called German Expressionism. While Hollywood strived for realistic sets and fantastic action, the Germans used sets and techniques which placed the characters in dreamlike, deliberately unrealistic environments. The themes were often the supernatural and macabre.

One of the leading expressionists was F. W. Murnau, mostly remembered today for making Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first movie adaptation of Dracula. In the mid 20s he came to Hollywood to make an American expressionist film. The result was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Sunrise is a true masterpiece, a groundbreaking film and one of the best silents ever made. It is not a horror film (although there are definitely elements of psychological terror in it), but rather a romantic drama. None of the characters are named. They remain throughout the film “The Man”, “The Wife”, and so on, creating perhaps a deliberate distance to the viewer.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Combining his own expressionistic visions with the money and craftsmanship of Hollywood, Murnau was able to create some amazing sets and a story which balances delicately between dream and reality. The acting is exquisite and if some of the character development may seem a bit extreme, that only serves to harmonize with the film’s dramatic imagery.

Sunrise stands as a symbol of the height of the silent film’s artistic achievements, but at the same time, that art form was already doomed. For that very same year another pivotal film was released: The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. Within three years, this would mean the definite end of silent films, and with them the elegant but noisy cameras that made possible much of the visual technique. And that same period would also see the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 1930s would be a totally different society with totally different film-making, for better or worse.

This film is best enjoyed in a calm and relaxed mood.


Addendum, 2014-08-08: Since first writing this review, the version I linked to has been taken down, possibly because of copyright considerations regarding the score. I have now changed the link (and the relevant information below) to point to the only remaining version on the Internet Archive known to me. It has good music, free to distribute, but has low resolution. So low, in fact, that had that version been the only available at the time, this review would not have been written.


 

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Download link
Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg (424 M)