|(Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh/UFA, 1924)|
Nobody would mistake the U.S.A for Germany. But in December of 2010, I started to wonder if we should. I had been to Erlangen, Germany in January of that same year and returned in December, figuratively. Whereas my snowy trip in January had felt like a maneuver through the maze of upper Bavaria in order to see Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld, this time (ironically) I had much easier access to German silents. In December, I saw a triad of films at the Harvard Film Archive, including The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924). This was part of a series of silent cinema from the Weimar Republic period in Germany, lasting from approximately 1919-1933. One thing I can’t see happening is our films looking anything like the films produced in those zestful fourteen-odd years in Germany. But in regards to visual horrors, psychological struggles and societies in transition—perhaps our modern cinema is part of the same torment.
It’s impossible to say, approximately when Weimar cinema began; sometime shortly following the First World War. ‘Weimar Cinema’ is the term loosely used to describe the outburst of German films that came out of the relative stability and democracy of the Weimar Republic, following Germany’s defeat in World War 1. It includes the German expressionist films, as well as melodramas, comedies, political propaganda, documentaries, and films made overseas, such as Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). However, the term “Expressionist” implies technique and style rather than genre, so it could be argued that most of these films contained expressionist elements. This is essentially a point Lotte Eisner made in her important study of German expressionism; The Haunted Screen. Expressionism in this visual sense is shadows, visions, hallucinations; man’s inner struggle projected on the exterior world, and the struggle—sometimes triumph-- of man’s spirit amongst the chaos that surrounds him. In The Haunted Screen, Eisner presents these themes and tropes as things particularly German, even inscrutable to non-Germans. But certain German films from this period were wildly popular in other countries, and The Last Laugh was one of them. Yet is it the expressionist elements that keep it popular for a modern audience? For the audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts?
I had seen The Last Laugh once before, but in a muddled VHS print that somehow bored me. It’s funny that this was my first impression, because The Last Laugh is essentially a visceral film about the horror of eventual boredom. Consider the barest summary of the plot: a nameless doorman (Emil Jannings) at the hotel Atlantic, one of the most bustling hotels in Berlin, the man to meet in his neighborhood, and the sole provider for his family. He’s just getting a little old; at one point, he attempts to lift the heavy chest belonging to a guest off a carriage. He stumbles, and drops the chest.
One day, he returns to work to find a new doorman in his place. He is then informed that, due to his age, he has been transferred from the position of the doorman to the keeper of the washroom in the basement of the Atlantic. He is mortified, and steals his doorman coat in order to keep up appearances with his family. But soon, his wife finds out, and he is thrown out of his house. His neighbors laugh at him. With nowhere else to go, he sneaks back in to the hotel one night, to sleep in his private hell; the washroom. A sympathetic doorman on night duty takes pity on him and lets him inside. Fade out on Jannings slumped over the sink like a fallen statue, a jacket the only thing that shelters him from the cold night.
|(The Last Laugh/UFA, 1924)|
Let’s set aside the final fifteen minutes for now, and consider this chunk of cinema. The Last Laugh is the first film of the Weimar period to use an “unchained” camera; a mobile, roving camera that tracks down hallways, follows Jannings through the streets and in to buildings, and sometimes outpaces him to home in on what doom lies ahead. Today, we have perfected this detached form of camera movement in the form of the stedicam. But cinematographer Karl Freund’s 1923 dollies look no less smooth than the work of a stedicam. Perhaps the smoothness does not come from the actual camera movements, but because he and Murnau are so well attuned to the mechanics of daily physical existence. This makes The Last Laugh, for the first half hour, the most bustling of all expressionist films. The film begins with an invitation to the commotion; we move down an elevator to the lobby of the Atlantic hotel; the door opens and an escort extends his hand. We then cut to the revolving doors—so vital to the story---stuffed with guests spinning around and around. It is as if the viewer has moved through the lobby himself, in the space of a cut. Murnau and Freund must have known that this is the most cinematic way possible to travel through space, because they riff on it throughout the film. A later shot depicts the apartment complex in which Jannings lives coming to life in the early morning. Stillness, followed by lights in windows, then people hurrying outside, and clothes being darned against the morning air. Jannings moves through his spaces—his apartment complex and the hotel—like a lumbering figure of plump comfort, always wearing his doorman coat. Because of the unchained camera, the viewer walks alongside him in a trance for some forty minutes. Then it all comes to a terrible halt.
Watching Jannings suffer is embarrassing in its grandiosity, and soon starts to verge on tedious. Thus, it was necessary to inject the fantastic in to the film. The film starts to blur the line, at some point, between mere presentation of humiliation, and fantastic representation of psychodrama. The psychodrama is, of course, where expressionism really comes in to play. In one scene, occurring well in to Janning’s plight, he walks along an empty sidewalk in the dark of the night. Shadows hit the brick walls behind him; he raises his head to the sky as he approaches the hotel. Expecting to look up to the steeples of the hotel, Jannings is instead confronted with the entire building tipping over, about to crush him. He holds his hands up in fright; cowers down against the wall as the hotel’s form becomes elongated against all rules of construction. Its slow tilt appears enabled by the sky. The whole scene is, no doubt, a hallucination. When Jannings awakes from it, he is back to square one. The hotel remains in his path; no longer falling, but no less crushing.
|(The Last Laugh/UFA, 1924)|
A later fantastic and frightening scene occurs within a dream, a common motif of expressionism. First, Jannings is drunk at a party hosted by his neighbors; he passes out and envisions himself standing in the center of a well-lit room, party guests surrounding him. Through a burred lens, he lifts up a chest like the one he was unable to shoulder earlier. He spins it around on his hands and struts around the room in dance-like motions. Everybody is cheering. Then he wakes up again.
Such devastating dream imagery is the only way we can stay with Jannings and not avert our gaze from his steady mope. His wild visions, juxtaposed with these black realities, coming on the heels of images of strength and individual might, are not simply the expressionism of the film; they are the only reasons to care about Janning’s plight instead of the next working stiff’s.
The expressionism of The Last Laugh, then, is nothing if not indulgent—in the best sense. It is all over the place, it convulses, it appears when we don’t expect it and disappears when we want more. It fits the story like a cape; we could have watched a tearjerker, a comedy, or a pool of sentimentality about a poor old man. Instead, we see a film that shows us the light and energy of employment up front before flailing darkness upon its protagonist for the second half. The only problem with this style is the question of why it was necessary for the Weimar republic.
To figure this out, we should remember that the Weimar republic was not, in fact, a god-awful place to live and work in. Up until the Great Depression of 1929, Germany kept itself at a relatively prosperous status. Elections were free. Arts were subsidized. The film industry was booming. The number of movie theaters rose from 2,000 to 5,000 by 1930. International deals were made, enthusiastically, with American film companies; this was the reason Murnau himself got the opportunity to work in America and make Sunrise (1927), considered his best film by many. Films were produced on controversial subjects such as homosexuality (Different from Others, 1919) and communism (Whither Germany?, 1931). Both these films were later banned by the Third Reich, but it seems remarkable that they were produced at all.
What, then, is stylistically necessary for such a society? To Murnau, it was the primarily the images he presented, the movement he conceived, in The Last Laugh. At the start, the doorways to the hotel swing around like glamorous turnstiles, letting the rich guests come and go with ease, and Jannings come along for the ride. An hour later, the doors still swing, but this time in a brittle, meek motion. This is because they are the wooden doors at the back of the hotel lobby, leading down to the washroom; Jannings has just passed through them, resigning himself. This image is the saddest of the whole film, but, as with the unchained camera, as with the spinning chest, it is exhilarating, too. While we head with this downtrodden man down to the basement, we feel pitiful that the economy of a life has come to a halt. But isn’t there a dual sense of dazzle in watching the humiliation unfold? Murnau’s expressionism of hallucinations, daily rhythms and swinging doors was a hit in Germany and in America. His film is implicitly carries left-wing baggage with its depiction of a worker being exploited. But politics are, thank god, overcome by style. The aim of Murnau’s expressionism was to wildly stylize the misfortunes of the average person. Which was exactly what the average person wanted to see on a screen.
We can now no longer avoid the end. A rare intertitle appears onscreen. Murnau informs the viewer that the story should have ended there, but he chose not to be so cruel to his protagonist. Instead, we are shown the doorman’s remarkable change of fate. One day, the head concierge at the hotel drops dead. He leaves his fortune of some million dollars to the washroom attendant. In the final, extravagant scenes, Janning’s picture is shown in the newspaper, touting his remarkable stroke of luck. He has won his family’s graces back and now dines an expensive breast of turkey and a cake at the Atlantic. He allows the doorman who showed him earlier sympathy to have a few bites; he climbs on his carriage (no longer having to struggle with the baggage of the rich) and heads off in down the street laughing in joy as the crowds wave him on.
What the viewer gains from these final scenes is at first uncertain. Murnau was apparently forced by the UFA studios to add this ending. But what he does with it feels, rather than uselessly optimistic, bitingly sarcastic. It leaves a glint of mockery in our minds; with the sudden title card, it breaks the fourth wall in a way that asks to be viewed as out of place. Whether or not Murnau felt the ending was sincere may always be unclear, but from the evidence on the screen, he seems to consciously show us a fantasy; the way that the average person, of course, wants life to turn out. The title card acknowledges that the ending is “improbable,” and Murnau apparently once remarked that the entire film was “absurd” because a washroom attendant certainly made more than a doorman (another joke?). With such a bit of wishful thinking tacked on, Murnau may have been bitterly giving the studio heads, and the gushy populace, a taste of their own medicine. It was another section of his necessary expressionism. He probably had no idea that he was also illustrating the deluded wish that most Germans had for their future.
We may not know how Weimar cinema came to be, but we know exactly how it ended. As the 20’s wore on, Fascist politics became more popular and anti-Semitism more prevalent. The economy collapsed in 1929, and four years later, Hitler was elected to power. A mass exodus of German writers, intellectuals and filmmakers shortly followed. What had once been a prosperous, productive nation now became rigid, toxic, and, eventually, warmongering. Murnau himself would leave Germany—earlier than many others—and ended up dying in a roadside accident in Santa Barbara, California at age 42. Jannings stayed, and became a flag-waver for Fascism. It may have looked like a sudden catastrophe at the time, but in a sense, it had been a slow, national inevitability. Censorship laws, for one, had already started by 1920, as a crusade against ‘trash and smut’ in art, and against films that threatened Germany’s national interest. Expressionist films, as the historian Siegfried Kracauer put forth, contained elements of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism that would later blossom in reality. In this context, the end of The Last Laugh looks more disturbing. Was there something sincerely felt about the inexplicable triumph of one man over everybody else? Something about the gluttonous Jannings stuffing cake in his mouth that should have caused alarm?
Such a nation may not sound dissimilar to the U.S in the years before the economic slump of 2008. Extracting the fascist politics, we have seen intense prosperity followed by war, unemployment, and the grand promises of leaders. If we are pulling ourselves back together, it feels very slow.
But what of our nation’s films? Is the U.S in its own Weimar-Expressionist phase of cinema, or is it too late? There are actually many surface similarities. Weimar films were always intended for the elite middle class, like our films. Like our films, the most bankable genres were the horror film, the fantasy-adventure, and the science-fiction spectacle. Then, they gave us Nosferatu and Metropolis; today, they give us The Lord of The Rings trilogy and Inception. But the films of the past two decades have mostly been, and continue to be, ironic whimpers at middle class life (modest-budget independent cinema), slick evocations of social problems (documentaries, most independent cinema), or glossy fantasias (Hollywood). And since it has become increasingly difficult (and pointless) to tell what a truly independent film is, what we really have is a mass-market blurb of trends. Whether or not there will be a historical judgment on the social significance of the current U.S cinema is uncertain. For now, all that our cinema shares with Weimar cinema is a consciousness of hot topics and marketability. But our current cinema has dragged on too long, and more importantly, there has been no unifying style, no wild mixture of social probing and visual madness that Murnau and others caught on to. We never had a coherent Weimar-Expressionist phase. If we did, there was no Last Laugh.
I fear for our future just as I feared for the past when I finished watching The Last Laugh. Our films never warned us about our current chaotic state, so what images do we shoot from now on? Should we shoot buildings toppling on to wide-eyed, unemployed old men just like Murnau did? Or should we soldier on with our middle class art objects and special effects sugar highs? What we might need in America are apocalyptic visions, hallucinatory imagery, and stories of the personal and the societal. This is only being accomplished to a small extent. But it is happening on and on in our minds.
But then, I think to myself, there are always other, better films being made. Perhaps there is still time for our own burst of expressionism before the truly dark times. There is also the very real possibility that, in fact, our nation and its cinema is no more chaotic and stupid than they ever were; that those complaints are only fuel that the intellectual loves to burn. Because he feels like he’s doing his job, he’s watching the doors. He won’t despair.