FW Murnau, supreme poet of German silent cinema, had two ambitions: to dispense with verbose intertitles and tell his story in pictures alone – and to free his camera from the cumbersome limitations of the period and let it soar. And he almost achieved both in The Last Laugh. The story sends up the German obsession with uniforms. Emil Jannings, German superstar du jour, plays an elderly doorman working at a posh hotel, whose grand schmutter makes him a figure of consequence. But when he’s demoted to loo attendant, his social standing plummets. Intertitles are minimal and Murnau’s entfesselte (unchained) camera swoops, soars and glides around the action. Jannings’ performance, admired at the time, now looks as hammy as a butchers’ convention, but The Last Laugh remains a towering peak of silent cinema.
Not so Woman In The Moon, Fritz Lang’s final silent film. A triumph of sophisticated design, it features a spaceship on which Lang called in some of the top rocket scientists of the day to advise (including a young Wernher von Braun). Alas, the plot is as creakily old-fashioned as the film’s design is futuristic, stuffed with melodramatic clichés and talky intertitles. And by the final reel – set on a moon with a breathable atmosphere! – the acting’s overemphatic enough to make Emil Jannings look like a master of subtlety.
Well furnished with extras (plus lengthy booklets), both films benefit from gleaming new restorations by the Murnau Foundation, restoring lost footage that’ll give completists something to shout about.