“Der Letzte Mann” is an extraordinary cinematic experience, which is claimed to be one of the classics of kammerspielfilm – the German 1920s film movement, which aimed at an intimate insight into life of an ordinary middle-class German. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the director of “Der Letzte Mann”, introduced in his feature so much emotions-weaven stylistics and creative camerawork, it seemed almost as if his film somehow overhauled its successors.
“Der Letzte Mann” tells the story of an old porter, who works in a luxurious hotel Atlantic. His work grants him with respect in the local community, which suddenly ends, when a new person is hired to replace the porter. The man, degraged to toilets’ keeper vacancy, struggles to hide from others his personal failure. Soon he is also exposed to human atrocity and inhumanity.
“Der Letzte Mann” fascinated me with the directing brilliance, which surely derived from expressionism. The astonishing usage of darkness and light grabbed my attention from the first minutes, but the peak was reached during the “drunk” scene – a tiny masterpiece on its own! The astonishing effectiveness of visual aspect of Murnau’s drama is also reflected in the storyline. The titular porter is a powerful tool in the director’s hands – it’s not only a blatant symbol of a man, who lost his job and laments about it. Instead, this minute piece works as a metaphor for exhibiting brute reality and the social machine, which mercilessly takes away porter’s dignity and self-confidence, leaving him almost naked and humiliated.
I cannot be certain about my perception of “Der Letzte Mann” if not for the music played live in one of the Warsaw’s cinemas during the screening. This almost surreal time machine offered me a completely new experience. Murnau’s film was disturbingly real in its topic and maturity, like it was directed purposely to look vintage, but was actually directed in the 21st century. The social rejection of older people is a rising problem nowadays as it was back then – the world became too fast and complex and its easy to get derailed from the track. Murnau’s drama cynical tone sounds even more bitter nowadays, even though the times are changing.
The film had also its interesting ups and downs. One can imagine, that censorship was quite harsh back in those days – the producers of the film demanded a happy ending to take full advantage of marketing and promotion possibilities – all in the praise of “profit maximization” idea”. As a consequence, Friedrich Murnau decided to craft an alternative ending, transforming the overall tone of the film into a cynical, bitter comment on contemporanous society. Eventually, this “false” ending as we may call it, became one of the reasons, why this German film is so unique.
What’s interesting, the message behind Murnau’s classic is undeniably universal – this actually strikes me as something pitiful, yet fascinating. Although it was directed almost a century ago, the care for social acceptance remained deeply rooted, even more than ever. We still judge people based on prejudices, on their profession, on how do they look like – there is a clear bridge linking 21st century and “Der Letzte Mann” – human nature remains the same. Despite of the fact, that decades have passed, Murnau’s story touches just like it used to before. Who would not love the happy ending offered by the German expressionist to be actually truthful? Unfortunately, this ending seems to be even more unrealistic than it was in 1924 – all in all, it’s not the fundaments we are changing nowadays, but only the outside layers of our reality, right?
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