Expressive Miseenscene In The Last Laugh

Trick Photography And Special Effects

Trick Photography and Special Effects

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While I have been primarily emphasizing the way Murnau uses photographic effects, that is, cinema-specific means, to project the subjectivity

Figure 18. The grandeur of the city created through special effects—the use of model shots and forced perspective. (The Last Laugh, 1924, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung.)

of his character, no assessment of the visual power of The Last Laugh would be complete without a discussion of the film's mise-en-scene. The look of The Last Laugh set a new standard of lighting and art design for film, and is still impressive today. Especially striking is the design of the grand hotel situated in the center of a large bustling city. Murnau had to make the hotel especially grand because the grandeur of the hotel and the city had to be commensurate with the size of the old man's over-inflated ego. So glorious are the hotel and city in The Last Laugh that shortly after the film appeared in America Murnau received a telegram from someone in Hollywood who deplored the fact that America had no city to compare with the grandeur of the one in The Last Laugh.9 Yet the magnificent city and hotel were the creation of set designers and everything was constructed on the back lot of the studio. The splendor of the city was created through special effects—the use of model shots and forced perspectives. In her book on Murnau, Eisner includes an account by one of the set designers, Robert Herlth, to explain how it was done (see figure 18).

The view, or rather "background," seen from the revolving [hotel] door was managed by means of a perspective shot of a sloping street 15 metres high in the foreground diminishing to 5 in the "distance." The street ran between model sky scrapers as much as 17 metres high. ... To make the "perspective" work we had big buses and Mercedes cars in the foreground; in the middle ground middle sized cars; and in the background small ones, with behind them again children's toy cars. Farthest away of all, in front of the shops, we had crowds of "people" cut out and painted and moved across the screen on a conveyor belt.10

The look of the city is also enhanced by Murnau's carefully controlled, non-naturalistic use of light, which conveys subtle nuances of Stimmung, or mood, that coincide with the doorman's mental state throughout the film. The use of the expressive, unchained camera and special photographic effects, combined with stunning sets and lighting techniques, all in the service of telling a complex story focusing on interior feelings rather than exterior actions, made The Last Laugh seem to many film theorists and critics of the time the ultimate example of film as high art, equal or superior in its evocative power to drama and literature.

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