Silents, Please: Masterpiece "The Last Laugh" Screens at Rosendale Theatre 1/9 | Film | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Silents, Please: Masterpiece "The Last Laugh" Screens at Rosendale Theatre 1/9 

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Although he’ll forever be best known for his iconic 1922 German Expressionist horror masterpiece Nosferatu, trailblazing film director F. W. Murnau (1888-1931) also created other classics of early film—several of which, quite tragically, have not survived. One that fortunately has, however, is 1924’s The Last Laugh, a prime example of the cinematic style called Kammerspielfilm (“chamber drama”), a silent-era German genre that portrays middle-class life. A major commercial hit in its day, the film was included in critic Roger Ebert’s 2000 “Great Movies” list.

The Last Laugh, which defies contemporary production norms by not utilizing the standard pre-talkie narrative device of intertitles (aka title cards or dialog cards), stars actor Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel, The Last Command, The Way of All Flesh) in the lead role of a proud, long-serving doorman at a prestigious hotel whose world is skewed when his advancing age sees him demoted to the position of basement washroom attendant.

“What really makes The Last Laugh special is Emil Jannings’s performance,” says Georgette Mattel, the coordinator of the Rosendale Theatre’s monthly Sunday Silent Series, which is now in its 10th year. “It might sound like an insult to say this today, but he was really made for silent film. He’s so expressive that it just carries the story, even without the title cards.”

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Watching The Last Laugh makes it clear why 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, 1931’s Dracula, “I Love Lucy”), 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.” The movie’s art director was Walter Röhrig, who had previously helped to create The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s strikingly nightmarish aesthetic.

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“A lot of people only equate silent film with pie fights and slapstick like you see in the Chaplin and Keystone Cops films,” Mattel says. “I really think they’ll be surprised and amazed by how sophisticated and technically superior some of the films actually were, and The Last Laugh is one of the best examples of that. If you’re a film lover at all, this is the roots of where modern film comes from.”

The Last Laugh will screen at the Rosendale Theatre in Rosendale on January 9 at 2pm. The showing will feature live musical accompaniment by pianist Martha Waterman. Tickets are $6.

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