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  Der letzte Mann

rating: (out of 4 stars)

Germany; 1924; aka The Last Laugh
Directed by F.W. Murnau; produced by Erich Pommer; written by Carl Mayer
Starring Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin

In the 1920s German Expressionism is the best known movement to make films, with leading directors Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, directing expressionist masterpieces like 'Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari', 'Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens', 'Faust' and 'Metropolis'. But another German genre emerged in the 1920s, named the Kammerspiel, and 'Der letzte Mann' is the bext example. This genre focused on a small group of characters and dealt with dramatic events in daily life, often ending unhappily.

This film tells the story of a doorman (Emil Jannings) at the Atlantic Hotel, who loses his job and has to the work the hotel's washrooms. With his jobs his great uniform is lost, which gives his life meaning not only on the streets in front of the hotel, but also at home in his apartment building. Almost literally the world of the doorman collapses, in some sequences where Murnau does use the expressionist visual style.

Although the story goes towards an unhappy conclusion, the only logical ending the film could have, the production company (UFA) objected it and forced writer Mayer and director Murnau to add a happy ending. Of course they did not want to, it seemed very impausible, but they were forced. To demonstrate their unhappiness they exaggerated and even used an intertitle to explain the "author took pity" on the old man. The result is an epilogue where the doorman inherits a fortune and spends it with friends and strangers.

The used intertitle is the only one in the film and would not be there if the strange epilogue wouldn't be there either. The story, as other films in the Kammerspiel genre, was told through images, the right editing, some symbolism, a perfect performance from Emil Jannings, the great Oscar-winning actor in silent films, and director Murnau using the camera, together with cinematographer Karl Freund, in a terrific new way. From time to time it seems to simply flow through the air.

'Der letzte Mann' belongs to the best Murnau films, I would go with 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans' as the best, and it belongs to the greatest of the German silent films, and there are quite a few. Many of those films were technically brilliant and never cease to amaze. 'Der letzte Mann' may be from the 1920s, it is still able to move us emotionally. The final moments show a frustrated reaction on studio intervention, which makes it all the more interesting.

  Review by Reinier Verhoef