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Great Artist, Great Human Being … Not Always the Same Thing


MAKING POINTS-A lot of Americans have heard of Marlene Dietrich, but not so many have heard of Emil Jannings. Most of us have heard of the film The Blue Angel, which starred both of them. 

Jannings created characters which are so memorable that they are taught in film school. The Last Command is one of his masterpieces, both a comment on life and on luck (much of it bad). In his earlier film The Last Laugh (1924), Jannings creates the character of an aging German hotel doorman, proud of his station and his uniform, who gets demoted to being a washroom attendant. 


Wouldn't it be a small miracle to be able to experience these great works as they were originally presented? And then came The Silent Treatment, and made it happen. 

The Silent Treatment is the organization created by a couple of local film archivists, one from the Academy (that one) and the other from UCLA. Brandee Cox and Steven Hill have resurrected some of the old luster of the Silent Movie Theater, a one-of-a-kind place that I have written about before. It's kind of like having your own time machine, because you get to experience a different kind of art form as it was meant to be experienced. 

The history of film as a business and as a new art form began in the 1890s with a pair of inventions. Thomas Edison gets credit for investing in the process and hiring the people who developed the motion picture camera and projector. Curiously, Edison didn't think that these new toys were important enough to file foreign patents, so he ignored the overseas market. This allowed other inventive types such as the Lumieres to craft their own cameras and make cinema into a worldwide phenomenon. 

In the early days, it was just film moving quietly through the projector. In order to add the minimally necessary words that would move the story along, filmmakers added written titles. Unlike the modern sound film that is as much about spoken dialog as about the picture, early films lacked the luxury of synchronized sound on film. The early directors had to tell the story visually, because there is only so much written clutter you can add to the picture without turning a film into a page out of a book. 

And this lack of the spoken word is actually what allowed early cinema to be an international, cross-border phenomenon. A silent film consists of visual material set off by the occasional title card. To show an American film in France, it was only necessary to ship the visual part of the film along with a written list of titles. On the other side of the ocean, the distributors would print up the titles on film stock and splice them into the appropriate places. American films were shipped all over the world, keeping translators busy creating the foreign language texts. 

And it worked the same way for the foreign films presented in the United States. Murnau's Der Letzte Mann is shown in the US as The Last Laugh. The foreign translation (we're the foreigners from Murnau's perspective) got a modified title, The Last Man being renamed as The Last Laugh. 

It's also fair to suggest that the lack of synchronized on-screen dialog is what made cinema into a serious art form, because it forced the filmmakers to develop their story telling abilities using what they had. To paraphrase a line from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, they had faces to point their cameras at, and they had movement to capture. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were American film actors who excelled at expression and movement, and out of it came comedy genius. Murnau took a more somber approach, using his art and talent to explore human depths. 

In the 1924 Germany depicted by The Last Laugh, there is a wealthy and comfortable upper class who are the guests of the hotel Atlantic. Then there is the working class, serving and kowtowing to the hotel guests. Jannings is among that working class crew, but he is in a position of prestige and honor among them, since he is the head doorman. He wears a resplendent coat complete with shiny buttons -- the uniform of a general, as it were -- and he proudly wears it home each night as his own badge of honor. 

Home, as Murnau depicts it, is a drab block of apartment buildings peopled by working stiffs and muddy children. They are people who get up early in the morning to go off and serve the wealthy, and come home in the evening to gossip. Jannings holds a position of honor by virtue of his holding a good job which comes with an impressive uniform. The film develops this level of social comment without being overbearing. The working class environment is presented as one of life's givens, and the fact that these people dress up in white jackets and ladle out caviar to the upper crust is treated as reality rather than a call to revolution. 

As an aside, but considering film as an international artform of its time, it is interesting to compare Murnau's matter of fact acceptance of class separation with the Russian films of the same era, which were post-revolution and determined to portray the upper class not only as hopelessly degenerate, but also as doomed to be punished by the glorious revolutionaries. Not so in Murnau's picture of Weimar era Germany. Murnau makes his social comments in the subtlety of his character portrayals, and leaves it to us to fill in the blanks. 

F.W. Murnau worked with an economy of written material that is hard to imagine until you actually see it on the screen. The Last Laugh has only a few titles, and these are just signposts if you will, rather than revelations of character. 

One such written title is a letter handed to the old man by his boss, explaining that he is being replaced in his position. He will no longer be the chief doorman, but is offered the job of washroom attendant. The letter is presented as a kindly gesture on the part of management -- at least that's how management would see it -- but it is a crushing blow to the old man. He is not only destroyed emotionally, he is humiliated personally and publicly. It is the element of humiliation that is a revelation to the modern audience, because it comes out of the social situation that Murnau is exploring. 

As Americans in this modern era, we are fairly immune to the idea of class separation. Our ideology is that any boy can grow up to be president, and any hard working person from whatever background can grow up to be rich. As a people we don't look down on the newly rich, and we also don't generally think of the lower income earner as a separate species. Apparently we are different from our ancestors, at least if you accept Murnau's portrayal of class differences in a previous generation in Europe. 

Jannings' character is not destroyed because his demotion makes him poorer, but because he has been dishonored. The loss of the grand topcoat has been equivalent to the loss of self and spirit in Murnau's world of 1924. 

It is a great character study that was brought back to life the other night. In keeping with the tradition of the silent cinema, which was never really silent, the film was presented with live accompaniment by keyboard artist Cliff Retallick. The art of silent cinema is like the art of grand opera, where no two performances are quite the same, and where the musical interpretation is as much a part of the show as the visual elements. 

Cliff Retallick is of the younger generation. He came to the Silent Movie Theater following the death of Bob Mitchell, who until recently was one of the few surviving accompanyists who had experience in the original silent era. It is interesting to watch Cliff develop in this special art form, of which there are few living practitioners. 

Both Jannings and Murnau were Europeans who later came to the United States and worked in the film industry. Jannings won the very first Academy Award for best actor, given to him in 1929. Murnau stayed over here until his untimely death. Jannings went back to Europe, worked in the German film industry, and stayed. He made Nazi propaganda films for a while, left Germany after the war without resuming his acting career, and died relatively young. The ability to create great works of art and the ability to be a good human being are not always the same thing.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch and can be reached at [email protected]







Vol 11 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 13, 2013






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