Thoughts On: The Last laugh (1924)
The story of a elderly doorman being demoted.
The Last Laugh is a simple masterpiece by one of the greatest silent film directors, F.W. Murnau. It follows the doorman of a prestigious hotel who is growing elderly and so is demoted by upper management to a washroom attendant. The Last Laugh is then a film focused on social facade as it explores the paradigm of respect. We see this through the pride that our protagonist has in his high ranking job, one symbolised by a lavish work coat. And this seems to permeate through to the area he lives in and the people he meets. In such, he is a well respected man, but, all of this is entirely forgotten after he loses his position as a doorman.
In an incredible impressionistic sequence, the doorman slinks home after being demoted and stealing his coat back, gets drunk at a party and attempts to use his stolen coat to conceal his demotion from all of those around him. However, with his wife coming to his workplace at midday, he is quickly found out – and the secret doesn’t stay with his wife. The truth is overheard as the wife comes back home and spreads throughout the housing block. Returning home, the doorman is then met by a wall of ridicule and is soon rejected by his family.
It’s here where we see the tables turned on the doorman that we have the commentary on social facade articulated. The doorman, now seen to have been lying all along, never had the true respect of those around him. Instead of appreciating him as a person, they enjoyed the spectacle of his success. In such, his neighbours, friends and even his family, were drawn to an intangible channel of social exchange. They saw his success as the entity they interacted with instead of the man that greeted them every morning and helped look out for them and their children. The crux of this commentary lies in the self-reflective title card that proceeds the doorman returning to the washroom as to escape his neighbourhood and sleep. The card reads:
Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.
By explaining the huge tonal jump into the positive conclusion – which we will discuss further momentarily – the paradigm of social exchange and expectation depicted is said to be the reality of the world. In such, it is said that people are often far too easily drawn to the power or social status a person represents as opposed to their actions or genuine self. This then means that the doorman’s neighbours never appreciated his gestures, the daily greetings and pleasantries, instead, the fact that they could associate themselves with a symbol of prestigiousness. By choosing to see him as a liar, an old man that was probably never the doorman to a famous hotel, they choose to entirely disregard his actions, labelling them as meaningless. Moreover, by ridiculing the doorman and never giving him a chance to explain himself, the neighbours seem to find a way of disrespecting him that they hold onto tighter than they did the initial respect.
These themes of respect and social exchange are also explored in Murnau’s Sunrise. Through this later narrative, Murnau expands on the idea of a social paradigm that is quickly polarised into an ‘Us vs. Them’ dichotomy. In such, he affirms the preciousness of deep-rooted relationships that are based on more than a respect of power and social status; relationships based a person’s actions over a long period – an idea encapsulated by the concept of memories within a relationship.
Whilst we see the conflicts of such an idea presented later on in a relationship within Sunrise, during the epilogue of The Last Laugh Murnau, explores the young roots of such a paradigm. This is done by depicting the doorman’s lasting generosity as he visits the hotel he used to work at as a serendipitous millionaire. The core of this sequence lies in the manner that the doorman sees right through the uniforms people wear and straight to their actions. In short, he sees himself and the physical struggle in others and chooses to define and interact with them accordingly.
What adds poignancy to this epilogue is the fact that it is acknowledged to be fanciful. The decision to include this untruthful ending probably had a lot to do with the terrible economic state that Germany was in during the mid 20s. In such, the happy ending acted as a form of wish fulfilment for those attending the cinema as a means of escapism. Nonetheless, this epilogue remains powerful outside of this context thanks to the acknowledgement of its contrivance. Through the self-reflexive card, the reality of a world where the doorman would probably have never risen above the melancholic climax becomes ever more impactful. And by depicting his sustained genuity as a rich man, we are left with a poignant affirmation of the importance of walking in another’s shoes and seeing past their uniform.
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