Murnau was filming in a democracy, albeit a fledgling one, and his vision of inequality and cavalier authority—of the vast contrast between the individual, with his vast dreams and fragile dignity, and the overwhelming, impersonal, implacable force of a society burdened with unquestioned traditions and ruthless habits—virtually shrieks with warnings of impending disaster.
Widely cited as the first film to employ a dolly shot, F.W. Murnau’s THE LAST LAUGH is much more than a formal milestone. It is, among other things, an inspired fusion of expressionism and psychological realism, employing a bounty of stylistic innovations to create a three-dimensional portrait of a working-poor hotel doorman, the sort of neglected urban figure who rarely assumes the central position in works of narrative art.
When modern filmmakers attempt to portray the plight of the poor, they often lean on condescendingly spare realist tropes, implying that impoverished people might not have the interiority that necessitates expressionism. By contrast, Murnau and Jannings viscerally define the porter's mindscape, exploring his fantasies and shifting emotional states. Jannings is more than formidable enough to hold up to the formal trickery that Murnau and Freund employ throughout the film.