Without sound, silent films become almost a completely visual medium and there was no one more visually-minded than German director F.W. Murnau. Aside from the opening title card and a message to begin the epilogue, he stays away from that kind of aid to tell his story and instead relies wholly on the image. His film does, however, boast a vibrant score, so that fills the void in the absence of dialogue.
Emil Jannings, the rotund, mustachioed leading man, stars as the veteran hotel porter, who is demoted to bathroom attendant due to his age and frailties. And it’s true that he always seems bent over and perpetually weary, but it only gets worse when he loses his esteemed position as the symbol of The Atlantic Hotel. Before he stood beaming ear to ear in his prim and pressed uniform that reflected his status. Then, he winds up towel in hand, resigned to stay hidden away in the bathroom. Now everyone could care less about him. It’s a tragic trajectory that this story takes.
The film opens at the lavish hotel which feels very similar to the grand hotel, and this along with the man’s apartment building are the main locations that Murnau works with. And he does set up his scenes so interestingly, whether it’s around a revolving door in the hotel or the staircase in the apartment. He’s constantly giving us a perspective of things with wonderfully textured, layered shots exemplified sublimely in such moments as Jannings superhuman feat carrying the large chest. Murnau gives it a wonderfully dreamy, ethereal quality, the way he clouds the frame. He also uses his actors in dynamic ways to fill the space in front of us. It hardly ever feels static or boring for that matter, because there’s almost always something of interest to be looking at.
This is a very heart-wrenching film, because, in a sense, at its core, it’s about aging gracefully and trying to navigate that season of life. Because, the reality is that, each one of us will grow old. Our bodies won’t be able to function like they used to. Our feet will grow weaker. Our eyes will become tired more easily. We can completely understand this man’s plight. He has pride and the shame of acknowledging his demotion is too much for him to bear. He tries to hide it, from the wife and from the neighbors, but, of course, they find out. His family is ashamed and his neighbors belittle him with glee. The saddest thing is this doorman is not a bad fellow, as illustrated by how he comforted a little girl who was being made fun of. He’s a good man, and he deserves better than this and yet life very often is not just. The gossips and the connivers seem to get ahead. The beatitude, the first shall be last, hardly ever seems to be true. In fact, the film pauses with the following title card:
“Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”
There is a major shift in tone as the doorman is left a huge sum of money rather unexpectedly, and he spends the days now eating heartily and generously tipping all his former colleagues at the hotel. It almost feels like a completely different story, and it’s the ending that we want as an audience. Except still lurking in the back of our minds is that this is very rarely reality. But there is some satisfaction that at least in this case Emil Jannings had The Last Laugh.
This film is literally a piece of film history that has thankfully been reconstructed for our viewing pleasure and I’m thoroughly glad it was. I’ve only seen Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is magnificent. However, after watching this earlier work it made me realize I need to examine more of his filmography, including Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), City Girl (1930), and Tabu (1931).