It’s the 14th of March evening when the Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival starts: the room is complete, one of Murnau’s movies is ready to be screened and the musicians of the Ensemble Déjà-Vu (piano, violin and double bass) are also ready to integrate the movie with their creative music. Some might say that the silent movie era was not cinema because of the lack of recorded sound; others would say that real cinema was only and precisely during those years, because it achieves to communicate universally with only one of components of the cinematographic medium. Here I won’t stand for any of these positions: I will simply talk about a masterpiece of cinema history, Murnau’s Der letzte Mann, starring a great Emil Jannings, produced in 1924 at the time of the Weimar Republic. Talking of purism, though, it must be said that here even intertitles are absent, in the belief that the image can be totally independent. The result is impressing.
Let’s start by considering the title, which has been oddly translated as The last laugh, even though a literary translation would have been pretty easy. This translation has been chosen by English language as well as by Italian (L’ultima risata) but, for example, not by French nor Spanish: this last made a diplomatic choice (El último), while only French respects the German original title (Le Dernier des hommes). To understand the reasons which caused this choices it is necessary to go deeper into the plot of the movie.
Jannings stars an old man working as doorman since all his life for the luxurious hotel “Atlantic” (a tribute to Dupont’s Atlantic, perhaps?). There, with his sparkling uniform he feels untouchable, powerful, proud of his position and respected by family and friends because of it. At the beginning of the movie he receives an unexpected letter: given his age and frailty, the director of the hotel is demoting him to a less demanding task, that of washroom attendant. He will take the position of the previous worker, now too old even for that job which, we deduce, is a sort of “last step” in the working career at the hotel. Word after word, line after line, an irrevocable process of degradation begins for our doorman. All of a sudden, his dignity, his proud, his social status disappear altogether. He tries to hide the news at least from family and neighbors, but gossips are fast and people can be very harsh: no hope he can save himself from a brutal social humiliation. And if it is hard to ignore people’s derision, it is perhaps even harder to accept the awful fact within himself. The joyful atmosphere at home suddenly becomes a nightmare he has to face, as now even walls seem to be judging.
This would have been the end for Murnau’s taste. A gloomy realistic tragedy of a man deprived of his dignity. Apparently, though, the productors of UFA did not want to diffuse it, probably because of its negative aura, so they made Murnau to add a positive epilogue to his already accomplished movie. They wanted to finish with a “last laugh” and not with a destroyed “last man”. So he did, but in the most satiric way he could manage. The “happy ending” seems actually very strange during the vision and could almost ruin his masterpiece, since it is clear that something screech with the previous part. Considering the background beyond it, finally, Murnau can be forgiven and Der letzte Mann becomes a very peculiar movie (and that is why it must be pointed out). This last laugh is definitely not comic nor a relief, but rather a bitter cold comfort.
Technically, then, the movie is an authentic avant-garde of the 20s: Murnau uses a technique that later on will be called “entfesselte Kamera” (unchained camera), to get shots from cameras in movement, for example going after a man directly on a bike, following a funicular or generally objects, to move from one place to another, from one shot to another; this gave the camera a certain independence, never seen before. This same technique got the attention of directors such as Hitchcock: the master of suspense, and many others, used it to give an effect of subjectivity to the camera movements, to better enclose the audience in the movie. This way, reality progressively became a more relevant and creative cinematographic tool.
Der letzte Mann is very appropriate choice to open the 16th Festival of Karlsruhe: it shows Murnau’s genius, allows dynamic live music and, even after almost one century!, is still touching and up to date.