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Movie Crash Course: The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

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This is a strangely, simply affecting fairy tale of a piece, about an elderly hotel doorman who loses his job.

No, that’s literally the entire plot.  Save for an epilogue which is so tacked-on that even the filmmaker confesses he threw it in at the last minute.

We never learn the name of our hero, a big Santa of a man; we never even hear him “speak”, there are no subtitles or intertitles in this simple film.  But his pride in his work is obvious – as he scurries hither and thither attending to his guests, he finds time to tend to his appearance, smoothing down his moustache and polishing off his uniform.

And he does look quite dapper. His uniform gives him an air of respectability in the little alley where he lives – when he heads home after work, the neighbors all greet him, children stop to watch him pass, ladies beating out their carpets stop so as not to sully his uniform. He is the unofficial mayor of his street.

He lives in a small apartment with a young woman – the film isn’t clear whether she is a daughter or a niece – who is preparing to marry a young man from elsewhere in their building. He takes such pride in his work, though, that he skips her actual wedding, promising that he will be at the reception afterward.

But that day, when he arrives at work, another man is minding the door. He is summoned to the hotel manager’s office and informed that because of his old age, he is being demoted – from now on he will serve as the washroom attendant.  It’s clear he sees it as an enormous blow.

His day as washroom attendant is demeaning drudgery.  But one of the real bummers is that he has to give up his magnificent doorman’s uniform – and he is so disturbed at this detail that he breaks back into the hotel after hours and steals it back, donning it to wear to his niece’s wedding reception.

He dresses back up in it as he leaves for work the next day, secretly changing in a nearby train station and leaving it in one of the station lockers before resuming his real drudgery.

But a neighbor has the idea to bring him some lunch that day, and discovers the truth of his new position.  By the time he heads for home – having retrieved the uniform and changed back into it – the news has spread through his alley, and his neighbors are all laughing at him.  His niece is crushed, his niece’s new husband worried that he’s demented. In despair, he flees back to the hotel, where the night watchman catches him in the act of returning the doorman’s uniform.  The night watchman takes pity and lets him go – but instead of returning home, our hero heads for the mens’ room, resigned to his fate. He eats a simple bowl of soup and then despondently tries to fall asleep right there, because what’s the point. The night watchman discovers him asleep there, and tenderly covers him with his coat.  The end.

But not so fast!

Here the filmmaker admits to taking an improbable turn into fairy tale, in one of the only intertitles in the entire piece.

Immediately following this notice, we are first treated to a series of hotel guests marvelling over an astonishing news piece about an eccentric millionaire who has just died. His will stated that his entire fortune would be left to the person in whose arms he happened to die – and by a stroke of luck, that person was the hero of our story.  And then the last several minutes of the film are a bunch of sheer wish fulfillment, as our hero, jolly once again, treats himself to an enormous meal and basks in the attention of the hotel waiters and footmen; as for the night watchman, he’s our hero’s guest.

Our hero even excuses himself to the restroom, and makes sure he gives the rabbitty little man working the washroom now an enormous tip.  He and the night watchman finally exit to a cab – a team of fawning hotel attendants following them – and ride into the sunset.

It wasn’t until writing this piece that I made the surprising discovery that this film had the same director as NosferatuThe tone of each film is enormously different.  Although, in retrospect, both films did rely more on actors’ facial expressions and gestures than on language; the actors in The Last Laugh are fantastically expressive, and I was easily able to follow the action.

I’m not sure how I feel about that epilogue, though.  It is right on the edge of feeling a little too fantastical; but, on the other hand, it’s really cheering to see our lead looking so happy again.

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