The Man Who Laughs (German expressionist films: Part II)

Now it’s time to wrap up our discussion about German expressionist films. We already took a look at the Cabinet of Dr Caligari from 1919, this time we’re going to jump almost a decade later and take a look at what could be considered the last of the great silent films in the German expressionist style: The Man Who Laughs.

It was difficult for me to really include this movie in our discussion; I mean it’s not really a horror movie at all. That being said, there are significant horror-like elements to it which I’ll shed a little light on.

The film came out in 1928 and was distributed by Universal Pictures who had enormous success with Gothic horror films like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and, of course, the Phantom of the Opera. They were interested in making another film of its kind, so producer Carl Laemmle decided to film The Man Who Laughs based on a book of the same name by Victor Hugo.

Laemmle was well known in the German film scene and worked to get people from his home country involved in the film. He acquired director Paul Leni who was well known for his ominous and Gothic style. Universal was interested in acquiring Lon Channey for the starring role but he was under a long term contract with MGM, so the role went to Conrad Veidt, who you might remember as Cesar; The killer Somnambulist from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

I’ll try to break down basically what this film is about. It starts off with the evil king James II who sentences a young boy named Gwynplaine to be surgically altered to have his face in a permanent hideous grin. This is because the boy’s nobleman father offended King James. Although he was being sentenced to death anyway, the king’s jester Barkilphedro, who is a real sadistic bastard himself, suggests the boy’s disfigurement so that he can laugh forever at his fool of a father.
The boy is banished and finds a baby named Rae who is tragically blind. He takes the baby and they meet an old man, who takes them in and raises them as his own. Although he is nice, he also makes Gwynplaine and Rae part of a fair attraction and takes him town to town to make money. I just realized that Conrad Veidt basically played the same role in both this and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… weird.

Although Gwynplaine is happy with Rae, he is also obsessed with his appearance and hides it as often as possible. Everyone always laughs at him and it tears at his soul, so much so that he feels he has no right to love Rae because she cannot see his face.
The film’s plot picks up when they return to Gwynplaine’s homeland and, unknown to him, a rival of the old man notices him and essentially alerts the the Queen of England (by the time King James is long Dead). It turns out that Gwynplaine is the rightful heir to a large bit of land that is currently in possession of Duchess Josiana, who is a real 1690 party girl.

That’s pretty much all I’ll divulge of the plot.

Veidts performance and makeup cannot be overlooked when discussing this movie, the simple technique of turning up his face into a horrible grin with wire is truly effective for the camera. Not only is he able to convey emotion without the use of sound, he is also able to do it without the use of the lower part of his face. With just the power of his eyes you can see the true pain and torment through the twisted grin.

Although this isn’t a horror film, there are tonnes of nods to the genre within it. The classic beauty and beast scenario is the most obvious. Gwynplaine, like many classic monsters, is tormented by his appearance both internally and externally. The film even has the classic monster chased by mobs to a burning tower scenario, something that is synonymous with anything Universal produced in the 1930’s onward.

Just in parting, one of the things I found actually pretty funny about this film is that there is a dog named “Homo” in it. It’s not like he’s there for one scene, he is basically pivotal to the plot. Some of the title cards like “shut up Homo” or “Beware the homo-wolf” really struck me as funny. It’s also interesting to note that this film was the inspiration to the Joker Villain from the Batman comics. Although Gwynplaine is by no means a villain in this film, the look plus the personality of Barkiphedro really gets you to see how someone could conceive of the Joker after watching this movie.

Well that’s it for German expressionism for now! Next up we’re going to be touching on movies that put the word “Splatter” in splatterpictures!

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2 Responses to “The Man Who Laughs (German expressionist films: Part II)”

  1. I’ve seen this? or something very similar? Enlighten me. The plot sounds so familiar.

  2. Well it’s possible you read the book by Victor Hugo? He also did Le Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s also possible that you’re combining the plot of this and other Gothic films? Many films took elements of this story. Like I said the tragic “monster” a victim of circumstance, etc etc.

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