Friday, October 24, 2008

24. Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) - 1924

Director: F. W. Murnau

Synopsis: A hotel porter is demoted to washroom attendant because he is old. His job, and uniform, brought him respect in his poor neighborhood. He hides his demotion from his family and friends by stealing his uniform. Upon being discovered, he loses all prestige and becomes miserable. Then the ending. The horrible horrible ending.

Review: It has been my dream to be involved in writing or directing a romantic comedy. A recently divorced woman bumps into a man just this side of nebbish to still appear desirable. They do not hit it off. The divorcée's friend recommends the "perfect guy" who turns out to be the man she met previously. Through a series of crazy coincidences, the two keep running into each other and slowly bond over some ridiculous shared trait (loves dogs, ham radio, whatever). Everything goes beat for beat like every romantic comedy in history until the final five minutes. The man, after their first night together, leaves the house. Shortly thereafter, the director to a local asylum for the criminally insane knocks on her door to inform her that her new lover is an escaped murderer. The boyfriend comes in, sees this and murders the both of them in a scene just gorenographic enough for Murder-Set-Pieces or the eventual movie of Blood Meridian. Credits roll.

What does this have to do with Der Letzte Mann?

Der Letzte Mann's ending is as surprisingly antithetic as my torture porn/romantic comedy and completely ruins everything the previous 95% of the movie. I knew going into this that the ending was supposedly tacked on by the studio and undermines what Murnau was doing. I imagined something pretty ridiculous and Der Letzte Mann went beyond my imagination. Never will there be an ending so bad, so tacked on, as this and I have seen A. I. If you remember The Simpsons episode with the alternative ending to Casablanca where Ilse parachutes from the plane killing Hitler and marries Rick with Sam playing piano outside the church, this is the kind of tacked on happy ending Der Letzte Mann has (see The Simpsons take on Casablanca here starting at 12:47). It overshadows the preceding 80 minutes and ruins the entire experience. I am genuinely angry at having sat through that ending.

I know movies are ultimately a product. Studios want to protect their investment and make money. It's a film industry. That doesn't mean films can't be altered for the good by a studio. I suspect the 155 minute version of Tati's Play Time drags even more than the current version. Maybe the excised footage from The Wizard Of Oz slowed down the film. I don't know but I know which version of Brazil or Army Of Darkness I prefer. I know that no one is asking to see the theatrical release of Touch Of Evil or the 141 minute version of Seven Samurai. Der Letzte Mann is the best example of why studios shouldn't meddle in movies. Of all the footage lost forever, why couldn't the last few minutes of this join it?

The ending is so horrifically bad, this screen precedes it:
Enough about the ending because it really shouldn't be here at all.

When Norma Desmond said in Sunset Blvd. that silent movies didn't need words because they had faces, this is the kind of movie she was talking about. This movie has only one intertitle before the introduction to the, ugh, end. The entire movie really is told by the faces of the characters. The doorman is in virtually every scene and without words he makes every scene watchable (partly because of his great facial hair).

With no dialogue or intertitles to tell the story, the movie relies even more than the average silent film on overacting. After losing his job, the porter is so overcome with shame and emotion that he moves about like a character from a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. It's unnerving to see the almost stilted movement.

More unnerving is the porter's phyical transformation. This still shows the porter at his absolute best in the film: This still is him at his worst:He has gone from smiling which a woman on each arm to a jobless thief who apparently has chosen the path with the least amount of grooming. Even his previously immaculate uniform has started to fall apart.

That is, essentially, the movie. It's watching a man lose everything for no real reason. It is not a uniform and job to him. It is his dignity--his means of respect from his peers--being taken from him. All because he is aging he loses everything.

So, it's not quite a feel good movie. It's a feel bad movie but the kind that is completely watchable and engrossing. If you want to feel bad, this is the movie to watch. If you want to feel even worse in a totally different way, watch the ending.

A final note because it must be mention. This has probably the most influential camera work in film history and the modern audience probably won't notice. F. W. Murnau called in "unchained camera technique." The modern terminology is "movement." There is no existing film released before Der Letzte Mann with a moving camera. It is believed that Der Januskopf may have had one scene with a moving camera, but it can not be confirmed as it is lost forever.
All camera movement--as this entire list from a few movies from now should contain save maybe some Ozu (heh)--can be tied back to this movie.

Score: 9/10 Please please please stop the movie before the tacked on ending.

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