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Kino on Video presents
"The crowning achievement of the German expressionist movement and one of the most notable artworks to arise from the Weimar Republic."
DVD ReviewThere is a very good reason why there is no quotation from the film above: there is absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. Director F.W. Murnau (best known for Nosferatu) made this silent film completely without dialogue, and with only a few intertitles (which will be discussed below.) That this pantomime performance succeeds is a credit to the talents of star Emil Jannings and cinematographer Karl Freund.
The story is quite straightforward. Jannings is the unnamed doorman at the Atlantic Hotel. Fat and pleased with himself, he primps his vast moustache in between assisting patrons. When he sits down to rest after hauling a heavy trunk, the manager spots him doing so. The next day (which happens to be the wedding day of the doorman's daughter), he is demoted to washroom attendant and stripped of his fine coat with the large brass buttons. He suffers a terrible breakdown (possibly a stroke), and becomes an object of ridicule and mockery to his neighbors. Even his daughter and son-in-law reject him when they learn of his descent.
At this point, the intertitle appears and makes it clear that in life, death would be the only thing that the porter would have to look forward to. However, the author appends, "quite an improbable epilogue," in which the doorman indeed gets the last laugh of the title. Whereas this ending would otherwise make the film silly and mawkish, the single intertitle makes it clear that it is a mere canard thrown out to satisfy small minds that demand a happy ending, and underlines the inherent cynicism and despondence of the narrative.
Jannings is nothing short of spectacular in the role of the doorman. In the space of twenty minutes he goes from a pleasant, self-satisfed high to utter degradation and hopelessness, all conveyed in his face and his body language. His desire to work, even as the washroom attendant, makes him try to harness his pride, but with little success. His breakdown is quite believable and moving in the extreme. The supporting cast also does a fine job, with Mary Delschaft as the daughter reluctantly obeying her husband in turning away her own father. Emile Kurz, as the doorman's aunt, whose gossip informs the neighborhood about the demotion, is also excellent, making for a splendid harpy who lives only to pass the time with vile rumors.
Freund's camera work is highly active. There are tracking shots all over, and in one memorable moment the camera goes through a window in anticipation of the opening of Citizen Kane (though not as seamlessly as in the later film). When the doorman's aunt spots him working in the washroom, the camera rushes vertiginously into her eyes, compounding the horror of her expression. The breakdown is signified by multiple exposures and distortions which are highly unsettling. The photography is first-rate all the way. Especially notable is the drunken fantasy of the doorman, where he not only fantasizes resuming his job, but becoming a veritable superman who carries trunks with a single finger. The camera here weaves and wanders in and out of focus in a nice duplication of a drunken stupor.
Timothy Brock's music score is the final piece that makes this classic live. Centered on a mournful solo cello, the score beautifully underlines the action without being obtrusive or Mickey-Mousing.
Running time is over 3 minutes shorter than the 91 minutes stated on the case.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The transfer is a little bit over-contrasted in spots; highlights on occasion wipe out detail in a white glow. There is very good detail in the scenes which do not suffer from excessive contrast. The source print is in very good condition indeed, with only a few nicks and scratches. The film is presented in black and white, without any tints.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: The orchestral score is quiet and hiss-free. Excellent range and resonance comes through, without distortion of any kind. The bass is emphatic without being overbearing. No particular directionality was observed, but the sound is very good. As noted above, it supports the film very nicely.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Wrapping up the package is the German version of the intertitle regarding the ending, and of the inserts of a newspaper story. Whereas these appear in type in English in the film (the newspaper shots looking like a real paper), the German version has them merely done in calligraphy which, while attractive, is far less effective. It's not clear whether these are the original intertitles or later insertions to a print, but I much prefer the presentation as it is in the feature. Chaptering is not quite adequate, and the lack of an essay or any production notes hurts the release a little.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsOne of the great classics of the silent cinema, in an attractive transfer with good sound. Extras are a little slim, but recommended nonetheless.
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