The Last Laugh / Der Letzte Mann
d. F.W. Murnau / Germany / 1924 / 101 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City (Norwich, UK)

One of the problems with viewing (and writing about) silent cinema, comes with the knowledge that there is every possibility that – due to the loss of certain elements (such as tinting and toning), the addition of others (newly created soundtracks), or even re-editing (which often took place when films were re-released) – there is no way of knowing whether what you are watching is the ‘genuine article’, the film ‘as it was meant to be seen’.

Such is the case with Murnau’s The Last Laugh, screened as part of the silent season at Cinema City in Norwich on an aging BFI viewing print (possibly mid-’70s) which seems a world away from the supposedly glorious restoration undertaken by the Murnau Foundation in 2003.

Aside from the usual scratchiness at the head and tail of each reel (which you come to expect from archival prints), this BFI version also included the curious addition of a prologue describing the film’s innovative camera movement (and explaining its lack of intertitles), as well as a bizarre epilogue – inserted just before the final scenes – which essentially questioned the validity of Murnau’s ending.

The Last Laugh is essentially a story of emasculation and redemption in which an aging man (Emil Jannings), employed at an upmarket hotel as a footman, is demoted to washroom attendant much to the shame of his family (despite his best efforts to keep the news quiet). Suffice to say, that isn’t the end of his story (as the forced epilogue testifies) and his redemption lies just around the cubicle door.

Notwithstanding it’s visual and technical innovation, The Last Laugh a fairly simple, spare story in the Kammerspiel tradition (written by Carl Mayer) that actually felt a little drawn out for me. It unfolds on the screen as a kind of one-act, single-reel gag that might have been best served by a tighter running time. But then again, it really is amazing how different a film can seem under different circumstances, and watching a different print. Perhaps I should seek out the more recent restoration and find out once and for all.


This post is part of ‘For The Love of Film’, a film preservation blogathon to benefit the US-based National Film Preservation Foundation. The blogathon runs from 14 – 21 February, 2010 and is hosted by Ferdy on Films, etc., and The Self-Styled Siren.

It’s important to note that, whilst paper archives around the world are reasonably well supported by public funds, archives which secure the future of audio-visual materials are chronically underfunded. Any contribution you make to the National Film Preservation Foundation will help to restore and preserve a slice of audio-visual heritage for future generations.


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  1. Isn’t it amazing, though, how the film was told completely visually. Only that one title card before the odd ending (some say yes, that’s what he meant to do, others say no, that’s what the studio made him shoot). This film is so beautifully shot and poignant. Thanks for contributing to the blogathon.

    • steev says:

      Of course! Murnau’s use of visual language here is astounding (again), and he manages to tell a fairly intricate story without the need for written explanation or dialogue.

      It just goes to show that us audiences are able to pick up a lot from simple facial gestures and body language. If only more filmmakers today had a similar faith in their audience’s intelligence!

      Thanks for reading…

  2. You make a great point about the uncertainty of knowing what was originally intended. Of course, we could get metaphysical and say that EVERY story in the world is subject to this unknowability, but it’s particularly true of film, given its tendency to be messed with. Thanks for pointing it out–and for reminding me of “The Last Laugh.” I’ll have to watch it again soon………

  3. Joe Thompson says:

    Good points. It’s easier to mess with a film without a sountrack, where anyone can pick the sounds that go with it, where we’ve usually lost the original tinting and toning. “The Last Laught” is a good example to use, since we’re not sure that the ending we have was forced on the movie, or if Murnau meant to do it that way.

  4. Anonymous says:

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  5. […] twenty-odd years of meddling), but it does beg the question – as did F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh – as to what constitutes the ‘authentic’ version of such a film, and does such a […]

  6. […] little while back, I wrote a piece about F.W. Murnau’s  Der Lezte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924), with reference to some rather odd title-cards and the notion of whether what we see of […]

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