Stephen Brockmann summarized the film's plot as, "a nameless hotel doorman loses his job". It is a cinematic example of the Kammerspielfilm or "chamber-drama" genre, which follows the style of short, sparse plays of lower middle-class life that emphasized the psychology of the characters rather than the sets and action.
The genre tried to avoid the intertitles (title cards) of spoken dialogue or description that characterize most silent films, in the belief that the visuals themselves should carry most of the meaning.
In 1955, the film was remade starring Hans Albers.
Jannings' character is a doorman for a famous hotel, who takes great pride in his work and position. His manager decides that the doorman is getting too old and infirm to present the image of the hotel, and so demotes him to a less demanding job, of washroom attendant. He tries to conceal his demotion from his friends and family but, to his shame, he is discovered. His friends, thinking he has lied to them all along about his prestigious job, taunt him mercilessly while his family rejects him out of shame. The man, shocked and in incredible grief, returns to the hotel to sleep in the washroom where he works. The only person to be kind towards him is the night watchman, who covers him with his coat as he falls asleep.
Following this comes the film's only title card, which says: "Here our story should really end, for in actual life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue."
At the end, the doorman reads in the newspaper that he inherited a fortune from a Mexican millionaire named A. G. Money, a patron who died in his arms in the hotel washroom. Jannings returns to the hotel, where he dines happily with the night watchman who showed him kindness. On their way to the carriage, the doorman gives tips to all the service personnel from the hotel, who quickly line up along his way. In the final scene of the film, when both the doorman and the night watchman are in the carriage, a beggar asks the doorman for some money. The doorman invites the beggar to the carriage and even gives a tip to the new doorman, who is now in charge of bringing the guests inside.Emil Jannings as 'Hotelportier' (hotel doorman)
Maly Delschaft as 'seine Nichte' (his niece)
Max Hiller as 'ihr Bräutigam' (her bridegroom)
Emilie Kurz as Bridegroom's aunt
Hans Unterkircher as 'Geschäftsführer' (hotel manager)
Olaf Storm as 'junger Gast' (young guest)
Hermann Vallentin as 'spitzbäuchiger Gast' (guest with pot belly)
Georg John as 'Nachtwächter' (night watchman)
Emmy Wyda as 'dünne Nachbarin' (thin neighbor)
Director F. W. Murnau was at the height of his film career in Germany and had high ambitions for his first film with UFA. He stated that "All our efforts must be directed towards abstracting everything that isn't the true domain of the cinema. Everything that is trivial and acquired from other sources, all the tricks, devices and cliches inheirited from the stage and from books." Murnau called screenwriter Carl Mayer someone who worked in "the true domain of the cinema" and agreed to make The Last Laugh after Mayer and film director Lupu Pick fought and Pick left the film. The film famously uses no intertitles, which had previously been done by Mayer and Pick on Scherben and Sylvester several years earlier, as well as by director Arthur Robinson in the film Schatten in 1923. The film was shot entirely at the UFA Studios. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund used elaborate camera movements for the film, a technique later called "entfesslte Kamera" (unchained camera). In one scene a camera was strapped to Freund's chest as he rode a bicycle into an elevator and onto the street below. In another scene a camera is sent down a wire from a window to the street below, and later reversed in editing. French filmmaker Marcel Carne later said that "The camera...glides, rises, zooms or weaves where the story takes it. It is no longer fixed, but takes part in the action and becomes a character in the drama." Years later Karl Freund dismissed Murnau's contributions to the films that they made together, claiming that Murnau had no interest in lighting and never looked through the camera, and that "Carl Mayer used to take much more interest than he did in framing." The film's set designers Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig denied this statement and defended Murnau. Murnau described the films cinematography as being "on account of the way...[objects] were placed or photographed, their image is a visual drama. In their relationship with other objects or with the characters, they are units in the symphony of the film."
Murnau noted that the story was absurd on the grounds that "everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman."
The moving of the location of the camera, blurring of a part of the screen, focusing and defocusing, combined with using different angles, contributed to creating new perspectives and impressions of the viewers. The montage that was used in putting the scenes together was also pioneering: Murnau’s technique was to use a smooth and rapid cutting in the initial scenes followed by jarred cutting in the scenes where the doorman becomes humiliated. A combination of distortion and overlapping of images was used in the scenes illustrating private vision of the drunk doorman. The artistic part of the movie was in the acting of Emil Jannings playing the role of the doorman. Jennings used creatively his facial expressions, postures and movements, to which the cameramen provided enhancements by using close ups and the location of camera in such a way that the viewer sees nearly through the eyes of the doorman.
Decorations and presentation of contrasting environments were also significant in creating the impression. The contrast between the rich environment of the Atlantic hotel and the lower class housing, gives an impression of a realistic presentation of situations. The decorators for Der Letzte Mann were Robert Hearlth and Walter Röhring. Another use of contrast was the illustration of the respect and essentially the power of the uniform combined with the ridicule and disregard which the doorman experienced after his demotion.
The power of the uniform in the German culture was analyzed in a scholarly article by Jon Hughes. Wearing of a uniform appears to enhance masculinity of the person and provides some institutional power, as the wearer identifies himself/herself with the corresponding institution. Therefore, a uniform provides personal confidence and the respect of others, as illustrated in Der letzte Mann. The quick ascension of the Nazis to power could also be attributed to their widespread use of uniforms. The film Der letzte Mann illustrates clearly this effect of self-confidence and personal/institutional power as connected to wearing of a decorated uniform.
The film was made in 1924, at the time of the Weimar Republic. The war reparation payments imposed on Germany caused skyrocketing inflation, economical collapse, food shortages, poverty, malnutrition and hunger. Petit bourgeois Germans were looking for some hope for improvement of their situation. Even such an unrealistic possibility as inheritance of a money from somebody else was bringing some hope. This need for hope and the knowledge of the expectations from the general public were the reasons that Der letzte Mann had a happy, although unrealistic, epilogue.
German cinema began co-operative ventures with Hollywood producers, which led to mutual influence and in 1926 the German producers signed a contract with Hollywood, which started migration of German actors and directors to Hollywood. The effect was similar to the later observed brain drain of scientists, from all over the world, to the United States.
One of the results of the early cooperation was that the director Alfred Hitchcock went to Berlin and started cooperation with Friedrich Murnau. Hitchcock was very impressed with Murnau's unchained camera techniques and stated that his cooperation with Murnau was an "enormously productive experience" and that Der letzte Mann was an "almost perfect film". The cooperation with Murnau was for Hitchcock essentially a "key reference point" Hitchcock also expressed his appreciation to Murnau’s camera-points-of-view and the subjective shots which provided "audience identification" with the main character. High rating of Der letzte Mann in Hollywood was very high: "Hollywood simply raved about The Last Laugh" noted Jan Horak.
The film was a major critical and financial success and allowed Murnau to make two big budget films shortly afterwards. Critics praised the film's style and artistic camera movements. Film critic Paul Rotha said that it "definitely established the film as an independent medium of expression...Everything that had to be said...was said entirely through the camera...The Last Laugh was cine-fiction in its purest form; exemplary of the rhythmic composition proper to the film." Years later C. A. Lejeune called it "probably the least sensational and certainly the most important of Murnau's films. It gave the camera a new dominion, a new freedom...It influenced the future of motion picture photography...all over the world, and without suggesting any revolution in method, without storming critical opinion as Caligari had done, it turned technical attention towards experiment, and stimulated...a new kind of camera-thinking with a definite narrative end. Lotte Eisner praised its "opalescent surfaces streaming with reflections, rain, or light: car windows, the glazed leaves of the revolving door reflecting the silhouette of the doorman dressed in a gleaming black waterproof, the dark mass of houses with lighted windows, wet pavements and shimmering puddles...His camera captures the filtered half-light falling from the street lamps...it seizes railings through basement windows."
The film's story and content were also praised by critics, with Eisner stating that it "is pre-eminently a German tragedy, and can only be understood in a country where uniform is king, not to say god. A non-German mind will have difficulty in comprehending all its tragic implications." Siegfried Kracauer pointed out that "all the tenants, in particular the female ones...[revere the uniform] as a symbol of supreme authority and are happy to be allowed to revere it."
In 2000, Roger Ebert included it among his list of Great Movies.