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"Take away a man's uniform - what is left?"
on 4 May 2012
Appearances can be deceptive. If you were to judge by appearances, this would seem to be one of Emil Jannings' ever-popular exercises in onscreen humiliation (The Blue Angel, The Last Command) - and no one did humiliation like Jannings, the man with the most expressive back and shoulders in cinema. A huge worldwide star in the silent era and the first Best Actor Oscar winner, his career and reputation subsequently marred by the Nazi films he made during the war, the film has survived its star's disgrace to become one of the enduring greats. Its story may be simple, but the execution is absolutely extraordinary, the film still seeming extraordinarily fresh and modern even today - a film with an energy and a beating heart that makes for an invigorating piece of pure cinema.
Adapted from Nikolai Gogol's The Coat and a Broadway adaptation by Charles W. Goddard (the film's title actually translates from German as The Last Man, as in The Bible's `the last shall be first'), it taps into both the Germans' love of uniforms and the universal tendency to judge others by their appearance. Jannings plays the much-respected chief porter of the prestigious Hotel Atlantic. He may live in a neighbourhood not many steps above a slum, but as long as he has his grandiose military-style porter's uniform, he has the respect of everyone in his neighbourhood. It is the uniform, not money, that is the source of his power and authority, but when he is demoted after a humiliatingly pathetic display of physical strength shows his age, he is stripped of the overcoat like a disgraced officer being cashiered before the entire regiment and sent to work as a lavatory attendant instead, the lowliest position in the entire hotel. At first he attempts to hide his dishonour, but once his secret is out his neighbours' attitudes change almost immediately from love and admiration to contempt as he becomes a joke in their eyes. The only compassion he receives is from the night watchman in a moving drunken scene that you suspect everyone but Jannings wanted for the finale.
Yet far from this being a case of just deserts, Jannings' protagonist is a decent man for all his surface pomposity. All he has is the respect his position bestows on him, and once that is gone it is genuinely tragic to see this huge man shrink into himself. It's that human aspect that ultimately is the film's greatest achievement: it's as emotional and moving as it is technically innovative. And the film is incredibly innovative.
An attempt to make a silent film with no captions, the film tells its story with images and body language, with only a shot of a letter and a very reluctant onscreen excuse for the unbelievable epilogue imposed on him by his star breaking the flow of images (Murnau passed on the opportunity to direct The Blue Angel, fearing that Jannings would once again demand a happy ending: Jannings even suggested his Last Laugh co-star Molly Delschart for the Dietrich role!). Boasting the top talent in German cinema of the day (a screenplay by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari's Carl Mayer, produced by Eric Pohmer, magnificent production design by future cult director Edgar G. Ulmer), a huge 1.6m DM budget that allowed magnificent sets of the grand hotel and the beautifully rendered slum, and a lavish 180-day shooting schedule that allowed director F.W. Murnau a level of perfectionism rare even now let alone in 1924, the film is the best and most groundbreaking example of what became known as the `unchained camera' technique. And the camerawork is very much a star of the film. Few directors, sound or silent, understood the language of the camera as well as Murnau: Scorsese's been openly stealing from him for decades. You could even make a case that all modern cinema flows from this source, with many of the techniques we take for granted today being tried out here. The camera is rarely still in many of the major sequences, the hotel lobby filled with crane and dolly shots (the later reputedly invented for the film), Karl Freund's striking camerawork at times even assuming the perspective and failing eyesight of its tragic hero.
Thankfully the film has received some of the attention it deserves, with a fine transfer keeping the excellent 1924 score by Giuseppe Becce, Masters of Cinema's DVD also includes another good booklet and an excellent documentary detailing the differences between the different versions (three were shot, one for Germany, the others for export overseas, with many subsequent re-edits happening to both), how the forced perspective sets were designed via production sketches and blueprints and even breakdowns on individual shots. The DVD even tells you what film stock and cameras were used! Very highly recommended.