Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)

Alfred Hitchcock once described Murnau’s The Last Laugh as an “almost perfect film”. Watching it now it’s hard to disagree with him.

The film stars Emil Jannings as a nameless aging doorman at a well-respected hotel in Germany. The manager of the hotel notices him and decides he is too old to perform his job properly and is reflecting poorly on the hotel. He decides to demote him to the position of attendant in the washroom. Feeling demeaned and now without his uniform, the man slips into depression. 

It’s an astonishing and gripping performance from Jannings, and one that is rightly celebrated even ninety years on. The ability to fully engross the audience is formidable, with many long periods of the film simply focused on his facial expressions. It’s a one-man-show, and a film played out with just one intertitle. The basics of the plot can be explained briefly (see the second paragraph), but the meat of the story that makes it so special is acted out entirely facially through his animated grief.

Fortunately, the Masters of Cinema release includes the original 1924 Giuseppe Becce score, orchestrated and performed by Detlev Glanert. This single option takes out the uncertainty that often surrounds these classic films rereleased and the score is a perfect match for the visuals.

The epilogue following the only intertitle seems a little fanciful and at odds with the rest of the film. The intertitle even offers a disclaimer for it, almost apologising for not following through on the overly-realistic story it had played out in the previous sixty minutes. It provides a happy ending to the audience but feels a little like a studio executive has forced the ending on Murnau.

At the heart of it, it is a film that challenges the viewer to think about how we allow people to lose their confidence and treat older people with less respect than they deserve. It was, at the time, an unusual film with an extraordinary plot. Its success gave confidence to other directors to believe that a film could be whatever they wanted it to be. In that sense, it is one of the most important films of the silent era and one you should seek out as soon as you can.

[1] Bade, James, N. Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006).

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Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau, 1931)

The last of four films Murnau made after moving to America – the others being the Oscar winning Sunrise, the excellent City Girl and the now-lost Four Devils – Tabu marked something of a departure for the master director. He travelled to Bora Bora near Tahiti with documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. Setting out to make a docufiction film as co-director, it quickly became apparent that Murnau wanted complete control and Flaherty was bought out of his share of the film.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

The result of this is an opening sequence that seems very much like a documentary film, with native islanders (almost every actor in the film was an untrained native, along with most of the production crew) fishing, playing and acting naturally. According to the extensive booklet notes (thanks again Masters of Cinema), this was the only sequence Flaherty directed before he encountered technical issues with his camera and brought in cameraman Floyd Crosby to assist. The upshot of this was that the rest of the film was the responsibility of Murnau.

Subsequently, we then pick up on a more traditional method of storytelling. A girl named Reri (Anna Chevalier) is chosen by aged emissary Hitu of neighbouring island Fanuma to be the replacement maiden to the Gods. She is to be transported to the island to live there free of any kind of relationship; from this point on she is “tabu”. This is terrible news for both Reri and her lover Matahi, who defy this command and escape the island to a French-colonised island nearby.

The story of two lovers remaining together despite adversity is reminiscent of both Sunrise and City Girl, and other than the unfamiliar setting Murnau is on safe territory. It doesn’t feel stale, but it’s certainly the least dynamic of the three available Hollywood films. Both lead characters give assured performances in their roles despite a lack of experience. Matahi never worked on another film following this release. Anne Chevalier worked on two subsequent films (Polish film Czarna Perla and an uncredited role in John Ford’s The Hurricane) but neither are as fondly remembered as Tabu.

F. W. Murnau’s final film was actually released a week after his death. Whilst working on the sound for the film, Murnau was being driven up the coast from Los Angeles by a 14-year-old Fillipino servant and was involved in a car crash, dying a day later in hospital. It’s a shame that this was his last film and a tragedy that his life was cut short so early, robbing the world of countless more exceptional films. He had actually spent most of his final months on the island Bora Bora, having enjoyed his time there so much.

The definitive version of Tabu is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, packed with extras (deleted scenes, a short film directed by Flaherty using leftover footage, a documentary) and with an immaculate transfer. It also restores scenes that were cut before its original release, as well as those taken out in subsequent cuts over the intervening years (the explanation for all of this is in the extensive booklet that’s included in the box)

City Girl (F. W. Murnau, 1930)

One of the greatest shames of the history of film is the sheer amount of films directed by F. W. Murnau that have been lost. Dying at the young age of 42 following a car accident a week before the premiere of his final film, Tabu, he left a legacy of just 21 directed films, of which twelve survive. These include: Nosferatu (1922), Faust, (1926), Sunrise (1927), City Girl (1930) and Tabu (1931) – all classics. Without a doubt the most sought after lost film is 4 Devils (1928), one of only four American films he made before his untimely death. So as a result we are left with just three films from this latter period of his life. Sunrise is the most popular, having won the first Best Film Oscar (sort of [1]). The other two are readily available, and it is City Girl that I’d like to discuss today.

City Girl is a silent film released after the advent of talking pictures. The plotline covers a young farmer named Lem (Charles Farrell), who is sent by his father to sell the wheat crop in the city. After panic-selling the wheat as the prices dropped in value, he goes to a coffee shop and falls madly in love with waitress Kate (Mary Duncan). Soon after they get married and they set back to the farm to introduce her to his family. However, his father is bitterly disappointed with the cripplingly low price his son has sold his wheat for and in his anger struggles to accept Kate into the family.

Both leading actors have been captured beautifully in this shot.

Both leading stars have been captured beautifully in this shot.

What I found really unique about this film is the surprisingly modern portrayal of Kate by Duncan. She is certainly not a typical silent leading lady, and in fact throughout the film she is usually the most headstrong character. It works well as the mother of Lem is extremely passive and non-confrontational, further underlining Kate’s strength of character. Perhaps we could attribute this to the fact Katy is from the city and Murnau wished to portray city dwellers as a different beast to those from the country, but I prefer to assume it is because he wanted to show the world one of the first truly strong female lead characters. Indeed, Murnau even has a nod to a previous leading lady of his in the opening scene, with a woman looking suspiciously like Janet Gaynor’s wife from Sunrise trying to flirt with Lem on the train, only for him to give her the cold shoulder. It could be coincidence, but more likely it was a knowing nod to the audience to let them know it won’t be a repeat of his previous work – Lem looks so disinterested in her and this is underlined for the audience.

The whole film works really well, building to a ferocious storm-set climax. It must have been something to do with the pacing, but I was on the edge of my seat by the end hoping things worked out. It was a pleasure to see such a great piece of cinema for the first time and I’m only sad I won’t be able to see it again.

I’m glad I saw this. It’s the first Murnau film I’ve seen that isn’t common to the wider audiences. Whilst Sunrise and Nosferatu are must-sees, if you liked them then you probably should see what else his catalogue has to offer. It won’t take long to see everything that’s available, but City Girl is a great place to start. The next Murnau film I’d love to see Masters of Cinema release is Der Letzte Mann, a 1924 German silent picture that is currently unavailable in the UK. Come on, you know it’s right.

City Girl is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD now.

[1] The first Academy Award for Best Film is disputed because there were two awards given out on the night that were never again awarded. One for Outstanding Picture went to Wings and the other for Unique and Artistic Production went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Lovers.

[2] Mary Duncan was, incidentally, the last known person to own a copy of the film 4 Devils, which she subsequently lost… but we’ll forgive her for that as she is so good in this film.