Der Letzte Mann is less celebrated than FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1928), and its imaginative scope is certainly narrower. But it is perhaps the director’s most perfect example of purely visual narrative. It is famous for the absence of intertitles: Murnau simply shows us what is happening, even what is being said, rather than telling us in words.
The film is driven by an unstoppable performance by Emil Jannings as the proud old doorman at the prestigious Atlantic Hotel. Each turn in the story remoulds his body, each small humiliation etches itself in his face. The contrast between his proud erect gait as doorman and his cringing, hobbling posture when his fortunes change is the essence of the film. Though Jannings was, amazingly, only 40 at the time, he evokes vividly the trials of age – we feel in ourselves, as we watch, the old man’s aching back, shortness of breath, bleariness of eye, stunned incomprehension of a world leaving him behind.
The obligation to get the plot across without words certainly doesn’t cramp Murnau’s style. Practically every scene offers unusual composition and lighting, the most memorable vision being the nightwatchman trudging the murky gloom of the hotel basement, his torch glowing in the centre of his silhouette and then becoming a spotlight for the doorman’s shame. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund frequently turn the visual effects up to 11 – most extraordinarily by means of lens distortions. This might seem a limited and gimmicky technique (so did the wah-wah pedal before Jimi Hendrix); in inspired hands it proves richly expressive. But perhaps the greatest visual pleasures of the film are the moving shots with which the two parts of the film begin, drawing us through the perfectly choreographed world of the bustling hotel. The moving camera was a new technique in cinema then – and it is hard to think anyone has ever used it better.
The bleakness of the film is relieved by an exuberant Chaplinesque comic epilogue. Murnau introduces it with an extraordinary Brechtian distancing technique: an on-screen admission, in the film’s only title card, that he doesn’t believe his story could really end this way. The epilogue (like the prologue to The Darjeeling Limited last year) is so perfectly realised as to steal the show from the main body of the film.
Why is the film called Der Letzte Mann? The doorman is ‘the last man’ for a wealthy stranger, in an encounter which leads to his second turn of fortune. But this reading of the title would make the epilogue the key to the film (as does the standard English version of the title, The Last Laugh). And we can only see the film this way if we ignore the ironic framing of the epilogue. Instead I think we should understand ‘letzte’ as having the connotation of ‘least’ or ‘lowest’, as in the biblical warning ‘the first shall be last’.
A film like this – simple, melodramatic, sentimental, wordless – could not be made today. Watch it and visit a world we have lost.