Der letzte Mann (1924)

“Here he liberated the camera from gravity. There is a shot where the camera seems to float through the air, and it literally does; Freund had himself and the camera mounted on a swing, and Abel Gance borrowed the technique a few years later for his “Napoleon.” There are shots where superimposed images swim through the air, the famous shot that seems to move through the glass window, and a moment when the towering Hotel Atlantic seems to lean over to crush the staggering doorman.”

‘Der letzte Mann’, directed by F. W. Murnau in 1924, is a German silent film starring Emil Jannings. Jannings plays an aging doorman for an opulent hotel who is proud of his role. The management of the hotel decide he is too old for being front-of-house and decide to move him to the loos as a washroom attendant. The man experiences shame and the approbation of his family and sinks into despair and destitution. When he hits rock bottom, however, a chance encounter with a millionaire changes his fortunes. It’s a Weimar fantasy. The doorman suffers from the darkness and poverty of Germany having been hit by inflation and reparations, and this is emphasised by the contrast with the richness of the hotel. Whilst down-and-out, however, the doorman finds charity and sympathy from an odd mixture of people including fellow workers. The turn in the story, when it comes, is like a dream sequence highlighting the gluttony and abandonment of wealth. It’s a simple story, but Murnau’s direction makes this film soar. From an opening shot of the doorman through a revolving door (mimicking the movement of the film through the projector) to an alcoholic hallucination, Murnau pushes the style of the medium and truly innovates. The result is a movie that perfectly matches the rollercoaster trajectory of the character with the swooping and ever-moving camera. The director uses movement, light and the extraordinarily expressive performance of Jannings to tell a story with the bare minimum of intertitles.

Would I recommend it? As a social document it’s invaluable. As a movie it’s energetic and fun. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Blue Angel’ to see what happened to Jannings when sound came.

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