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Fri, May 10

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Epsilon Spires

THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis!

With groundbreaking cinematography, F.W. Murnau’s THE LAST LAUGH (1924) is one of the crowning achievements of the German expressionist movement. A beautifully conceived fable about a working-class man whose illusions of power and prestige within the hierarchical system become shattered.

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THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis!
THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis!

Time & Location

May 10, 2024, 8:00 PM – 10:00 PM

Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St, Brattleboro, VT 05301, USA

About the event

A stylized dramatization of the frustration and anguish of the working class, F.W. Murnau’s silent film The Last Laugh (1924) uses pioneering cinematic techniques to tell the poignant story of an aging hotel porter, brilliantly portrayed by Emil Jannings, who loses his sense of identity and pride within the hierarchical system once he is demoted.  

The story encompasses class consciousness and more—an awareness that the Great War marked the beginning of the end of an era. Specifically, how the war exposed the nepotism, privilege, and backward incompetence of the officer class, and the unfairness of a system that rewarded ancestry rather than accomplishment. The public (in Germany, England, and elsewhere) finally figured out that the officer’s uniform, in and of itself, did not denote or bequeath character. Dispensing with the customary intertitles and filming while moving the camera in extraordinarily inventive ways, Murnau and his cinematographer, Karl Freund, transformed the language of film. The movie’s art director was Walter Röhrig, who had previously helped to create The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s striking aesthetic.The Last Laugh succeeds in combining expressionist elements—such as extreme camera angles, distorted dream imagery, and disturbing light and shadow effects—with a complex psychological study of the main character in his fall from privilege.

About the Live Musical Score:

Jeff Rapsis is currently executive director of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, an educational non-profit based at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. He is a writer/editor, educator, composer, and performer who specializes in creating live musical scores for silent film screenings. Rapsis has accompanied silent film programs in venues throughout New England since 2007. His technique is to create a set of original music in advance for each film, and then improvise a score based on this material as the screening takes place. Outside New England, he has accompanied films at the New York Public Library’s “Meet the Musicmakers” series and the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Rapsis has also provided original music for several silent film DVD releases by Looser Than Loose Vintage Entertainment of Manchester, N.H., and scored the independent feature film Dangerous Crosswinds (2005). Jeff has previously performed six live film scores at Epsilon Spires for F.W. Murnau's masterpiece "Sunrise", Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality", "It!" starring Clara Bow, Victor Sjöström's "The Phantom Carriage"", The aerial adventure "Wings,"and Josef von Sternberg's "The Last Command."

Roger Ebert on THE LAST LAUGH-

The old man is proud beyond all reason of his position as a hotel doorman, and even prouder of his uniform, with its gold braids and brass buttons, its wide shoulders, military lapels and comic opera cuffs. Positioned in front of the busy revolving door, he greets the rich and famous and is the embodiment of the great hotel's traditions--until, in old age, he is crushed by being demoted to the humiliating position of washroom attendant. F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) tells this story in one of the most famous of silent films, and one of the most truly silent, because it does not even use printed intertitles. Silent directors were proud of their ability to tell a story through pantomime and the language of the camera, but no one before Murnau had ever entirely done away with all written words on the screen. He tells his story through shots, angles, moves, facial expressions and easily read visual cues.

Much of the doorman's happiness in life depends on the respect paid to his uniform by his neighbors around the courtyard of his apartment building. Murnau built this enormous set (most of the film, including rainy exteriors, was shot on sound stages) and peopled it with nosy busybodies who don't miss a thing. Ashamed to be seen without his uniform, the doorman actually steals it from a locker to wear it home. Later, when his deception is revealed, there is a nightmarish montage of laughing and derisive faces. His tragedy "could only be a German story," wrote the critic Lotte Eisner, whose 1964 book on Murnau reawakened interest in his work. "It could only happen in a country where the uniform (as it was at the time the film was made) was more than God." Perhaps the doorman's total identification with his job, his position, his uniform and his image helps foreshadow the rise of the Nazi Party; once he puts on his uniform, the doorman is no longer an individual but a slavishly loyal instrument of a larger organization. And when he takes the uniform off, he ceases to exist, even in his own eyes.

Murnau was bold in his use of the camera, and lucky to work with Karl Freund, a great cinematographer who also immigrated to Hollywood. Freund filmed many other German silent films, notably Fritz Lang's futurist parable Metropolis (1926), and his first notable American film was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). He was one of the links between German expression and its American cousin, film noir (see his work with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo. 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.

Essay by Michael Fox for San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The now-forgotten expression “clothes maketh the man” dates to the Middle Ages, but it seems to echo loudest from the early twentieth century when office jobs multiplied in new skyscrapers and country folk migrated to the cities by the tens of thousands. It could have been coined to describe the doorman of the upscale Berlin hotel in The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann), whose authority, status, and self-worth derive not from his character or accomplishments but from his position, represented by an overcoat bristling with buttons.

Women supposedly love a man in uniform, and so does everyone else in this pompous fellow’s tenement neighborhood. Actually, “love” is not the correct word for the tumble of emotions that the doorman (a hulk portrayed by the imperious, larger-than-life Emil Jannings) provokes, for pride and reflected glory will eventually give way to contempt and resentment. For now, his daily brush with the affluent, the aristocracy, and captains of industry sets him apart and above his neighbors; it also offers them a smidgen of faith that the job their children get toiling for the “1%” just might be in a swanky spot. Hope is the not-so-secret ingredient in capitalism. But one day, after many years of loyal service, the Atlantic Hotel demotes the front doorman to lowly lavatory attendant. With the reclamation of the doorman’s impressive, button-bedecked regalia, his dominance evaporates. Alas and at last, our man is revealed as an empty suit.

Emil Jannings was a massive monument as well as a major star in Germany, and the screenwriter Carl Mayer, the cameraman Karl Freund, and the director F.W. Murnau devised a fluid, kinetic film to situate him. While Murnau (Sunrise) is acknowledged as a genius and Freund came to be revered in Hollywood as an innovator (in addition to photographing the ending of All Quiet on the Western Front, he won an Academy Award for The Good Earth and received a Technical Oscar in 1954), Mayer is less appreciated.

Unlike the modern screenwriter, who is discouraged by producers and scriptwriting software alike from including shot descriptions and camera angles, Mayer wrote remarkably detailed blueprints that provided cinematographers, set designers, and even directors with a distinct vision. The Austrian native, whose first screenplay was the German expressionist milestone The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (another allegory of the aftermath of WWI), had a profound understanding of cinema’s special ability to convey psychological states. He believed “the movement of the camera … should convey the vertigo human beings experience when trying to come to terms with their environment.” Mayer was a true pioneer of cinema; he thought, saw, and created stories in the grammar of film. He imagined and invented compositions and effects that the other key talent had to figure out how to achieve. For artists like Freund and Murnau, that was the best kind of challenge.

Freund recalled in a 1947 interview for “A Tribute to Carl Mayer,” a pamphlet published after the screenwriter’s death at forty-nine from cancer: “For the well-known trumpet shot, we suspended the camera in a basket from a bridge that ran the length of the courtyard, and when we found that our pulley could not haul the basket upwards the way we wanted, we shot the scene downwards—and reversed the film in the camera. When we wanted to show Jannings drunk, I strapped the camera to my chest, with batteries on my back for balance, and acted drunk … Mayer’s imagination had convinced us that we could do anything!” 

Watching The Last Laugh makes it clear why Emil Jannings was such a superstar of the era, one on par with his likewise visually reliant contemporaries Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Theda Bara. Having graduated from an illustrious career as a stage performer, the Swiss-born actor simply lights up the screen with his dramatic facial expressions and emotion-fraught movements; Jannings loved the camera, and the camera loved him.

And it’s the revolutionary camera work, supervised by crack cinematographer Karl Freund (Metropolis), that further makes The Last Laugh such an influential work. Credited as the inventor of the unchained camera technique, Freund improvised during the production, strapping the camera to his body or hanging it from lofty rigs to get images unseen in prior films and pioneering the now commonplace methods of pan shots, crane shots, tracking shots, tilting, and other procedures. The movie certainly got the attention of Hollywood, which after its box-office success came a-courting for Murnau, Jannings, and Freund. It was also beloved of the young Alfred Hitchcock, who witnessed its making and adopted Freund’s practices for his own movies, calling it “almost the perfect film” and praising Murnau as “the greatest film director the Germans have ever known.” 

Tickets

  • THE LAST LAUGH

    Admission for one to THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis. Popcorn and refreshments are included! Doors open at 7:45pm, the film begins at 8pm. Please let us know if you require special arrangements. Enjoy the program!

    $20.00
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  • Sliding-Scale Ticket

    Ticket for one to THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $20. Thanks to a generous grant from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, subsidized sliding-scale tickets are available for those who self-identify as experiencing financial hardship. In order to make this program accessible for all, we are offering tickets by sliding scale. Taking equity and inclusion into account, please pay what you can to help support the venue.

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  • SUPPORT FUTURE EVENTS!

    Would you like to see more programming like THE LAST LAUGH (1924) w/ Pipe Organ Music by Jeff Rapsis? Please add a donation to your ticket to express your support and appreciation of the adventurous and intellectually-engaging programs at Epsilon Spires. Thank you & keep up the good work! Admission for one to THE LAST LAUGH, popcorn and refreshments will be provided! Bring cash for the bar. Please let us know if you require special arrangements. Looking forward to seeing you there!

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