best film:   Emil Jannings’ overall archiveable filmography is pretty skinny, but there are two masterpieces here to contend with. Both F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) are correct answers as far as the question of Jannings’ best film is concerned. Oddly enough, Jannings is in both a landmark for camera movement (Murnau’s film) and an early milestone of mise-en-scene frame design (von Sternberg’s film). One might use the only formal misstep in Murnau’s film (that weak epilogue that Murnau acknowledges “doesn’t occur in real life”) to break the tie and give the ever so slight edge to The Blue Angel.


Jannings as Professor Immanuel Rath in The Blue Angel. Most reviews focus on the colossal performances of Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich and they are not misguided in heaping an abundance of praise on the two. These are two of the towering performances of the early sound era. Jannings’ Professor Immanuel Rath is the tragic (operatic almost) arc of the film. Jannings is marvelous. He is so studied accentuating every adjustment of his glasses or the particular way he pours his coffee. His posture and appearance deteriorates (as does his soul) over the course of the film.  This is a study on humiliation – Dietrich laughs at his proposal and at the 73-minute mark the eggs with his rooster call – a cuckold. Jannings is clearly devastated without a word of dialogue as he puts on the clown suit himself. He has transformed.


best performance:  The Last Laugh but both this and the category above are essentially tied. In both The Last Laugh and The Blue Angel Jannings’ characters go through a horrifying journey of humiliation. They both start with such promise and pride (Jannings carrying it in his posture and shoulders) – even arrogance – the rise – before the tragic call of course. This is a Raging Bull level gut punch of a character study. In both films, Jannings’ characters fall into purposelessness – he is completed emasculated in The Blue Angel. He is scrubbing the floor in shame in The Last Laugh.


Jannings has not one but two performances that rank among the finest of their respective decades. The Last Laugh (pictured here) for the 1920s, and The Blue Angel for the 1930s. One is silent film, one is a talkie. 


stylistic innovations/traits: The Swiss-born Emil Jannings is now most remembered (f he is remembered at all) as either the first Oscar best actor winner and/or – as a Nazi sympathizer (he is portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). He was part of the Nazi movie propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels. While costar from The Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich was leaving Germany and becoming a U.S. citizen, Jannings went the other way and continued to work in Germany and star in Nazi films. Still, there is no denying Jannings’ achievements on screen or his awesome talent. He was a big man – stout. His resume includes two jaw-dropping performances in masterpieces and that is his clear strength. But with only six (6) overall archiveable films, that entire body of work is much better than it should be. He is hypnotic in Faust (another genius film from Murnau), his Oscar win is fourth (4th) best performance on his top five (5) below, and even in his sixth (6th) best performance in Waxworks is quite a feat. Waxworks is a top ten (10) of the year quality of the year film and one cannot take their eyes off Jannings when he is on screen. The first section of the film is the Baghdad set story with Jannings’ character. Very few actors could play evil as well as Jannings. He played Mephisto in Faust just a few years after Waxworks. Jannings had the technical skill to match any great actor – and a big canvas of face built for silent film shortcut casting. He sort of resembles Jim Broadbent’s Harold Zidler character (or vice versa obviously with this coming out more than seventy-five years prior) in Moulin Rouge!  Many of Jannings’ films simply do not exist anymore. He made five silent films in the states (all with Paramount) and only The Last Command has survived. When sound arrived, Jannings fled Hollywood – maybe because of politics, maybe because with his thick accent his career would have been dubious in the states  (he succeeded in talkies, just not in English) – maybe both. He then made his Nazi films and his career was over. His last archiveable film was made in 1930 with both him and director Josef von Sternberg operating at the height of their powers.  Jannings would pass away in 1950.


Emil Jannings as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander in The Last Command – the first winner of the Best Actor Oscar.


directors worked with:  F.W. Murnau (2), Josef von Sternberg (2) – two titans of early cinema


Jannings as Mephisto in F.W. Murnau’s Faust – made just one year before Murnau’s Sunrise


top five performances:

  1. The Last Laugh
  2. The Blue Angel
  3. Faust
  4. The Last Command
  5. Variety


archiveable films

1924- The Last Laugh
1924- Waxworks
1925- Variety
1926- Faust
1928- The Last Command
1930- The Blue Angel