The Last Laugh
Robin CliffordThe great German silent film director, F.W. Murnau, made 22 films before being killed in a mysterious car accident at the age of 42. Of these, 12 remain, and access to many of these is limited. The MFA, the HFA and the Goethe-Institut of Boston are presenting a complete retrospective of Murnau’s work from September 30 to October 13.
Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, is easily Murnau’s most well known film. This film was almost lost when Bram Stoker’s widow demanded that all copies be destroyed, but a London cinema club kept its print which later was acquired by Universal pictures. Nosferatu, which means plague carrier – not undead – was faithfully remade in 1979 by another great German director, Werner Herzog, and in 2000, Elias Merhige pondered the mystery of the original’s star, Max Schreck, about whom little is known, suggesting that Murnau made a deal with a real vampire.
F.W. Murnau’s 1924 classic, The Last Laugh, stars the great Emil Jannings, best known for his heartbreaking performance opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, as an aging head doorman at a prestigious Berlin hotel. Too old to do his job he falls from grace with the manager and is demoted to the lowly job of men’s room attendant. This silent, innovative masterpiece is totally devoid of “dialogue” as Murnau tells the Doorman’s story without a single title card – something totally unheard of at the time, or since. Alfred Hitchcock, who was profoundly influenced by Murnau, visited the set of this film to watch the director and his innovative camerman shoot. The director’s story-telling artistry is coupled with the talented eye of lenser Karl Freund, who went on to develop the three camera system for television shooting "I Love Lucy" that is used to this day.
Sunrise is simply the greatest film of the silent era and I’ll wrestle anyone who tries to convince me otherwise. This was Murnau’s Hollywood film and Janet Gaynor won one of the first Best Actress Oscars for her work in this. It’s a simple story of a country farmer who is seduced by a hotsie totsie from the city. He brings his wife on a trip to the city with the intention of drowning her, but instead falls back in love with her and is wracked with guilt when he is reminded of their wedding vows. When the duo visit a photographer’s shop, a humorous moment is scored with “The Dance of the Marionettes,” which later became Alfred Hitchcock’s theme song.
In addition to these three famous films, rarities like “Phantom,” “Haunted Castle” and “The Grand Duke’s Finances” will be shown.
Click here for the Harvard Film Archive's program and here for the Museum of Fine Arts's listing.
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