Tuesday, May 22, 2012

F. W. Murnau | Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh)

the coat in the closet
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Mayer (writer), F. W. Murnau (director) Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) / 1924

If one wanted to explain to someone the basic difference between an art film and a cranked-out Hollywood-like production, one could not choose a better example than the two films that make up F. W. Murnau’s German-produced The Last Laugh. For the larger part of this film is one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever filmed, using the camera (strapped to photographer’s chests,  held by cinematographers rolled about on wheelchairs, and dropped from heights via rope) in near constant motion, zooming in and out of the major rooms of the Atlantic Hotel, where most of the action takes place, in a way that was not only ahead of its time, but which has seldom been matched in the art form since.

    From the very first moment of Murnau’s Kammerspielfilm we are awed as we descend, within the glass encased hotel elevator, into the vast lobby that tells us immediately we are in a world of lavish pomposity and wealth. A few seconds later the camera comes to focus on almost as large mass, that hotel’s Charon, the grandly coated doorman, Emil Jannings, the central character in Murnau’s morality play.

Jannings performs his role with near operatic intensity, but what might have been perceived elsewhere as comically melodramatic, here is perfect to convey the inner man. Although the city in which this hotel exists might be any great metropolis—Alfred Hitchcock, working at the time in the same German studios reported that Murnau had all the street and shop signs translated into a version of Esperanto—we know, simply by the uniform, that The Atlantic exists in Germany. For Jannings' doorman absolutely exudes his pride, not only in his job as guide to the hotel’s cavernous domains, but in the uniform in which the hotel has dressed him: its officious tent-like shape, its several buttons (surely all of gold) and the decorative epaulets. For this doorkeeper, the dress is more important than the man.

     Arriving home from his day at work, we further observe just how important this uniform is in relation to the character’s personal life and community. The gossip-mongering women of his apartment complex, their mean-minded husbands, their nasty and bullying children, all stop what they’re doing as he passes in full dress. Smiles are plastered upon their faces, fights are interrupted, the dust beaten out of dirty clothing and beds, shooed away. Some even salute. So does Murnau make clear in his silent film, without a single title card, the lay of the land. The uniform and the man within is loved and respected. It not only symbolizes his life, but has transformed it. In his uniform he is quite simply a man of some importance.

     His home life, similarly, is presented as nearly idyllic. On the night we first see him at home, his niece is quite apparently overjoyed: she is to be married the very next day. Both wife and niece treat their breadwinner with love and loyalty, overjoyed just to see him strut imperiously through the apartment yard on his way to work.

     During the rainy afternoon of the day before, however, we have witnessed a small flaw in this man’s charmed world: rushing in and out, umbrella in hand, to usher the hotel guests back and forth, he has been asked to lift down one of the customer’s huge trunks. Gathering up all his strength, he brings the burden into the hotel, but he is exhausted by act, in need of a small sip of schnapps to regain his vigor. The hotel doorman, it is clear, is growing old, a fact not lost on the Geschätsführer, the hotel manager. The very next morning, the doorman is called in and handed a note. Taking out his glasses, another sign of his age, he slowly reads what’s written upon the paper (the only use of the written word in the central part of Marnau’s film): he has been relieved of his position as a doorman and ordered to replace the hotel’s oldest employee, the washroom attendant.

      Murnau quipped that the switch was actually for the better—“everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman”—but for Jannings' character the change is utterly inconceivable. As the manager forces him to remove his beloved uniform, the former doorman gradually shifts from a Charon into an Atlas, as he replaces the previous burden of a trunk by the weight of the world. Before our eyes, Jannings ages, by scene’s end hardly able to move. The uniform and all that it stands for is locked away into a closet, the key for which this now old man cannot resist stealing.

     Doors, which have previously been busy centers of entry and egress, suddenly grow into objects of gigantean proportions eerily rocking against their jambs without a person in sight. The world of the lavatories lies below the busy first-floor lobby, a journey that takes one through long, arched corridors that cannot help but remind one of entering Hades. Forced to put on a white work jacket, Jennings sits, his huge frame exposed, as if he were now naked.

     At the close of the day, this destroyed being is now reduced to sneaking into the manager’s office, escaping the harsh light of the hotel watchman, in order to retrieve his treasured coat. As he slinks out of the hotel, his whole being is possessed by a vision of the world that can only remind one of the First World War-time depictions of the German Expressionists, everything is askew, at an angle, dizzying in perspective.

     This man’s return home is now a painful one, but since he has returned in uniform, no one notices, and his family is delighted with his arrival, for now they can celebrate his nieces’ wedding. Yet. if the day before life had seemed idyllic, it is now filled with drunken souses, figures out of peasant carousals. The former doorman, himself, becomes inebriated, his head spinning out of control. By morning he is little better, as his earlier militarist strut is replaced by a stumbling, slightly drunken reeling forward motion. He arrives at his lavatory post late.

     He has also forgotten his lunch, and we soon witness his joyful wife on her way to deliver it to him. She quickly shows herself at the front door, darting behind a nearby wall to await his appearance. When he doesn’t show, she shows herself again, but cannot spot him; another man has apparently taken his place. An inquiry leads her into the hotel’s bowels where she sends a message for him to appear. When he does, she faces the nobody he has become, shocked, angry, ashamed. The new attendant painfully sits out the day, but by the time he picks up his former uniform in a train station check where he has left it, word has gotten out among the apartment dwellers: he has lost his job!

     Dressed once more in his magnificent attire, he is this time mocked by all the envious gossips, rejected even in his own apartment by his wife, niece, and her husband. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the grand hotel. This time he does not hide, but seeks out the night watchman, and, in one of the most painful scenes in all of film history, sheepishly hands him the stolen uniform. With apparent regret, the watchman hangs it, once more, in the forbidden closet.

     Together the two descend into the inferno of the men’s lavatory, where the watchman gently strokes his friend’s head and covers him with a coat before leaving, the camera documenting the sad heap of a the proud man he once was.

     So ends this great work of art.

Or so it should have ended. Universum Film (UFA) executives demanded a more positive close, forcing the director and writer to add an epilogue, prefaced for the first time with an actual title card reading: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” Mocking both the epilogue and the reason for it, the title card makes clear the creative partner’s perspective. And, in fact, the rest of the tale is acted out mostly with the other characters laughing in derision of the now wealthy former doorman, who has inherited a fortune from an American millionaire named A. G. Money, a patron who died in his arms in the hotel bathroom. Or perhaps they are just laughing at this ludicrous appendage.

      Throughout the film’s early scenes we have observed the lavish dinners served in the restaurant just off the lobby. Now, at the very center of that posh establishment sits the well dressed new millionaire, sloppily slurping up a gargantuan dessert as he awaits the arrival of his former night watchman friend, for whom he orders up platter after platter. Finishing the feast, the two exit through the door which he once guarded, awarding tips to all the hotel employees before employing one of the very carriages from which he had escorted numerous hotel guests.

     Where is this unlikely couple going, one well might ask? Why to Hollywood, of course, where Murnau showed up two years later, to escape, as a homosexual, Germany’s severe penal code! Cut to sunrise, the name of his next feature.

Los Angeles, May 21, 2012

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