The first notable things about Emil Jannings in F.W. Murnau's 1924 silent classic The Last Laugh are the bushy mustache and his doorman's uniform, an absurdly ornate long coat adorned with a wealth of brass buttons, a mighty collar, and swooping gold braids on the shoulders. It's an absurd get-up, meant to announce in the most ostentatious way possible that the Atlantic Hotel is so luxurious, it's hired a highly decorated officer to haul luggage and whistle down cabs. The 40-minute documentary included on the new two-disc Last Laugh DVD offers the surprising information that Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer intended the film as an anti-militaristic screed, with the message that money, not a uniform, carries real power. But today, the film reads more like a potent working-class legend, chasing the nightmare of any lifelong wage slave with the fantasy of glorious comeuppance.
Made entirely without intertitles—except for a scroll in the final act that shifts the film into a new direction—The Last Laugh tells its story through a roving, expressive camera and Jannings' larger-than-life performance. Radiating abundant pride, Jannings wears his doorman's uniform wherever he goes, whether greeting the well-heeled Atlantic guests or traipsing mightily through the courtyard of his humble apartment building. When his age and frailty prompt his bosses to strip him of his uniform and confine him to bathroom-attendant duty, Jannings tries to steal the outfit and pretend he's still a big shot.
As the title suggests, the tables eventually turn for Jannings in exhilarating fashion, but even then, The Last Laugh isn't betraying the cold indignity of his plight so much as it's commenting on the audience's need for a happy ending and money's role as the true gateway to power. Though Murnau, perhaps the greatest visual stylist of the silent era, does extraordinary things with the camera—a dream sequence positing Jannings as a giant among doormen is a particular highlight—his star's magnetism ultimately lets the story speak without words.
Key features: Along with the aforementioned nuts-and-bolts documentary, this special edition includes the 2002 restored German version and the choppier unrestored international version, which is of limited interest.