”Der Letzte Mann” is the proof that a brilliant director can turn a masterpiece out of even a simple story... and that the studio can trash it again. I prefer to focus on the first 75 minutes and treat the last 15 minutes as an anecdote.
This is the movie that convinced me that the hype surrounding F.W. Murnau is deserved. It is up there together with Sunrise as excellent examples of what is possible to achieve with a silent movie. For the first 75 minutes you feel that Murnau had a very clear vision of what he wanted and was able to realize it. There is a lot of talk about German expressionism of the twenties. Here it is crystalized in pictures so expressive that they do all the narration for us. In fact I only counted one (1!) inter-title throughout the movie, at 75 minutes, the dividing point between Murnau’s movie and the studio’s movie. Everything is done through acting, light, filters, effects and in general brilliant cinematography. At times I felt like stepping outside the story and just admire the skill behind it, but Murnau does not allow it. He tells the story with such intensity that only when we look away and consider the actual story do we realize that the premises are rather hard to swallow.
Emil Jannings (Der Blaue Engel) is the old doorman (for lack of a better word in English) at the posh Hotel Atlantic. He wears his uniform with pride and sports the most impressive sideburns ever to grace the big screen. His job means everything to him. This is who he is. When wearing the uniform he feels important and potent and gains his status in his neighborhood from it. His back is straight and he is content.
But he IS old and he is no longer suited for the job as doorman at the hotel. The hotel management, like any management running a business, deals with that and moves him to another position as washroom attendant. They are of course right and they could have fired him, which in Germany in the early 1920’ies would have been a terrible thing indeed, but the brutality with which they remove him from his position as doorman coupled with his strong attachment to his job makes it seem like an evil act.
The old man is devastated. His life force is sucked out of him and he is an empty hulk, hunched over and half blind. Even the washroom attendant job he is hopelessly inadequate for. This is acted out brilliantly by Emil Jannings. The transformation is complete when he cannot even brush the jacket of the arrogant guests in the washroom.
He does not know how to face his neighborhood. In his mind they will see nothing in him now that he is doorman no more. So he steals his uniform back and put it in storage during work hours so he can come home in glory, his neighbors none the wiser. This works for a while until a woman close to him, neighbor, governess or just admirer, I do not know, appear at the hotel to surprise him with lunch. She surprises him at the washroom and his pretence is revealed. To the old man this is a major blow. Now he cannot even pretend to be doorman no more.
The odd thing here and the premise that I find hard to swallow is that the old man’s assessment of what his neighborhood will think of him turns out to be true. Those are some very cold-hearted women. He immediately becomes the big gossip and instead of caring and sympathizing with him, they mock and taunt him and treat him exactly as his self-destructive mind is imagining they would. So when he returns home as a broken man he realizes he cannot be there anymore. He is simply not accepted. So he escapes and seeks refuge at the only place he has left, to waste away at the washroom at the hotel.
Thus Murnau tells the story of a man’s deroute when his status in society is stripped from him. You can argue that the old man is kidding himself; that he like everybody else has to accept that he is getting old and you can argue that the neighborhood and the hotel management is unnecessary cruel to him, but it does not make the story less heartbreaking.
Personally I have a problem with this entire washroom attendant function. 1. It is a job like any other and the hotel still cares for him. 2. Why would anybody need a washroom attendant in the first place? I find it disturbing when there is someone in the washroom helping me wash my hands and then requiring money for it. But then that is a bit beside the point.
Apparently the studio could not accept a depressing movie about a man cracking up like that so they insisted on a happy end. I imagine Murnau being so insulted at this requirement that he made an entire mockery of the end. It screams that it is made under protest. The old man suddenly gets a fortune in the most ridiculous and unbelievable manner and then gorge in his new found wealth together with his friend, the night watch. It is so exaggerated that you can hear Murnau shouting: “You want a happy ending? Well, take this, morons” and there is no doubt that this is NOT what Murnau wanted. I wonder if the studio saw the taunt.
Except for this piece of spoiled brat stunt “Der Letzte Mann” is one of the high points of the silent era. It has a very prominent place in my collection.