In silent expressionist films like The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924), costumes play a key role. Costumes designate and assign new identities to characters, further engrain a society’s hierarchical structure, and function as psychological influences on a character’s persona. As the French novelist Marguerite Duras once said: “A uniform is an attempt to reconcile form and content, to match what you think you look like with what you’d like to look like […] And eventually it comes to define you.” In silent expressionist films, which are stripped of the uses of the spoken word as well as of inter-titles, giving meaning to every gesture is paramount to a film’s success. In this essay, I will argue that the Doorman’s development of character is given meaning and depth via the use of costumes. By exchanging his shiny and sleek overcoat for a white uniform as bathroom attendant, the Doorman’s official status and psychological state of mind are completely altered and degraded. In this regard, costumes play a primary role psychologically as well as sociologically, as this paper will demonstrate.
The opening sequences of the film demonstrate how quickly a character’s identity comes to be forged via the simple act of donning a new costume. Whereas the opening scenes portray the Doorman as a proud and happy man who takes care of his customers at all times, even in pouring rain, the scene of demotion is a particularly touching one where the Doorman learns of his new position as bathroom attendant. During this scene, the Doorman goes through a wide range of emotions—shock, disbelief, sadness, and finally resignation. The new uniform as bathroom attendant comes to define the Doorman in an entirely new light, one in which his neighbours, his boss and his colleagues mock and jeer at him. Without his Doorman’s overcoat symbolizing pride, pomp and circumstance, the Doorman is nothing—merely a bathroom attendant, a man of little social significance.
Costumes function in helping further define and mark social differences and class structures. In this regard, The Last Laugh subtly critiques the events that rapidly unfolded in post-World War I society in Germany. At this time, tensions were erupting between pre-War German culture and the modernist, more capitalist and adventurous spirit of the younger Weimar generation. Scholars like Sabine Haker have argued that the Doorman represents the old German generation, a people that had survived the horrors of World War I but who were incapable of adapting to the shifting cultural and socio-economic norms of Germany. The collapse of the monarchy combined with the post-war years of socioeconomic crisis brought about many significant changes that, in many respects, left the older generations to fend for themselves (Hake 115). At the same time, the film successfully hints at the widening discrepancies and inequalities established between the upper class (the hotel) and the lower class (the apartment complex). Generational divides, economic demarcations, and societal pressure to conform—all of these factors had a major role to play in the Weimar Republic, as subtly hinted at throughout the film.
The Doorman’s new position as bathroom attendant preys constantly on his mind. Whereas the audience perceives the Doorman as a happy man who takes care of bullied children and of customers in the opening scenes, his change of persona is apparent when he dons his starched white bathroom attendant uniform. Physically, the Doorman’s shoulders are slumped, his face twists in anger, and his knees are bent. The societal and psychological degradation that the Doorman has sunk to seems to know no bounds when he is further mocked and humiliated by his neighbours.
In conclusion, costumes play a key role in forging identities, in structuring societal classes, and in psychologically altering a character. In this regard, The Last Laugh is no exception. Throughout the film, Murnau hints at societal changes that are sweeping through the Weimar Republic, brushing old people like the Doorman aside in the process. By shedding light on the radical events that came to define the new Weimar Republic, Murnau uses costumes to help characters accept or exchange their socio-economic identities, which explains why the proverb “clothes make the man” continues to bear prevalence to this day.
- Hake, Sabine. “Who Gets the Last Laugh? Old Age and Generational Change in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).” An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era Weimar Cinema An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era Weimar Cinema, edited by Noah Isenberg, Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 115.