December 23, 1924
Directed by F.W. Murnau
I had imagined that reading about the German hyperinflation of 1923, might lift my spirits. Like many others with six figures of college debt and no idea how to pay it off, I dream that such a hyperinflation may happen again. But the story of 1923 doesn’t offer much hope to the downtrodden debtor. Despite the protests from the crowd at zerohedge.com who claim that it’s immanent, or has even already begun, it’s basically impossible that any of us will be rescued from our debts by hyperinflation. Yes, the stock market is overvalued and ready for a crash, and yes, the Federal Reserve’s QE programs are completely untested experiments in free money, but the agents of Capital have many ways to deal with problems, ways that don’t endanger their own positions and don’t endanger Capital itself. Hyperinflation will only happen if Capital wants it to, and if it does happen, Capital will find a way to make sure the debtors pay. They’re probably already working on the problem.
One obvious difference between the current U.S. economy and the German economy of 1923, which is of course not mentioned by libertarian cranks contemplating America’s economic problems, is that Germany had been invaded by France and was under military occupation by January 1923, The French Occupation of the Ruhr provided a rare moment of coming together for the Germans, and the people, government, and even the military all supported a general strike. This policy overtaxed the German government, which was paying out lots of unemployment benefits and not receiving any revenue, and so they turned to printing money into oblivion.
Still, the death of the Mark could have been avoided if the government had merely raised taxes on the rich and on corporations. But Capital didn’t want that. It wasn’t the people who faced massive unpayable debts, it was the government and big businesses that had debts. The people had savings. It was in the business interest to let the Mark collapse. The people lost their savings and used their worthless notes as wallpaper while the industrialists suvived and profited as their loans were wiped out. Further, the death of the Mark betrayed the people’s faith in the republic, which was also desirable to the businesses who despised democracy and wanted nothing more than a return to autocratic rule.
Things got more desperate as 1923 progressed, culminating with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Hitler of course had been waiting for a moment like this one to make a march on Berlin, just like Mussolini did in Rome. National support for striking workers against the French had been awful. Fight the real enemy, the November criminals, he kept shouting. And he could tell his chance was coming. But the putsch was a total catastrophe. Hitler couldn’t get any of the rulers of Bavaria to back him, and his storm-troopers failed to capture the key buildings of Munich before reports of the incident were telegraphed to Berlin, and the army and police moved against him. Once the guns started firing, Hitler fled his men and was arrested.
There would always be more followers, and he had learned his lesson – never go against the police and army, who will always be natural right-wing allies. Hitler’s trial began in February, and instead of denying his treason, he embraced it, declaring that treason to the hated republic was the most patriotic German act possible. The trial was a national media event, and he went to jail a celebrity, and to many, a hero.
In 1924 the Mark was stabilized and the Dawes Plan flooded the country with American corporate investment. Germany was stable now, thanks to the loans flooding in from corporate America under the Dawes Plan. Der letzte Mann was filmed in 1924 and premiered on December 23rd, three days after Hitler was released from his low-security luxury prison cell. Society may have stabilized, but this movie had been made by people in the throes of catastrophe. The film’s story is a personal catastrophe – the loss of status. of a man who works as a doorman at a fancy hotel in the city, the Atlantic, a job that brings him veneration and a sense of importance. He’s forced out of this job due to his advanced age and sent to work as a bathroom attendant, stripped of the uniform that distinguished him.
He no longer stands proud in a resplendent uniform directing traffic, he must hand people towels – towels delivered to him by his new boss, a woman. He may hate the humiliation of working for a woman, but it’s only because his life is ruled by how the community see him, and that community is run by the women that rule the domestic sphere. When he returns to his apartment complex, it’s the women that giggle and point at his shameful loss of status. Their gossip has already informed everyone by the time he gets there. And we do see the world of women – how important women’s work is. We see them beating carpets, polishing, brushing, taking care of laundry, baking the cakes. The love bestowed is unmistakeable. Murnau films these events with even more dignity than the manly work of the hotel lobby.
With their savings wiped out, status was all anyone really had. But this is true not just for those experiencing financial disaster, but for everyone. We worry about how others see us because as far as our egos are concerned, it’s all we are – images for others that we identify with. This self-for-others is not really the real self, but a ghostly double. And so many of these images of the film’s hero, especially in the bathroom, when he is at his lowest, are only images of his reflection – his double – the self for others. In the mirror, or else viewed through a screen or glass – an image for the audience. When he first views his replacement, it’s through the great spinning glass door at the front of the hotel. – the Revolving Glass Door of Chaos.
The Unchained Camera
Previous movies in this story have featured pans on cameras riding on vehicles, but here the camera is set free in earnest. It moves around on tracks, spinning, gliding along the floors, creeping behind and rushing forward, a restless movement appropriate to the dizzy world of modern urban life. The “unchained camera” comes into its own after he comes home, his family and neighbors in the midst of a party, having no idea of his degradation. As he drinks, the camera begins to spin along with his mind, and he passes into a dream, his sleeping face dissolving into a revolving door, in front of which he stands in his uniform, as resplendent as ever. In the dream he is what he once was, young, stronger than anyone, surrounded by crowds who admire him. The camera appears to now be handheld as it takes in the crowd – the chaos of modern society is most clearly expressed through the lens of the dream.
The movie’s title, though it was translated as “The Last Laugh” for American distribution, is “The Last Man.” Who is the last man? Is it a reference to the last man that Nietzsche speaks of in Thus Spake Zarathustra, that product of modern society who lives a meaningless life of comfort and represents the opposite of the Superman? Or is he the last man alive? As the hero is reduced to the bottom of his degradation, the movie shows us its very first title card, informing us that the story proper has ended here, but that an improbable epilogue will follow. Bertolt Brecht was surely paying attention – he would use the impossible happy ending in his epic theatre style as a device of alienation. A single title, completely unnecessary except as a stylistic device to draw attention to the act of creation involved. In the scene that follows, we learn that the degraded bathroom attendant was actually the last man to spend time with a certain millionaire, who died in the arms of the attendant. Due to the stipulations of the millionaire’s will, the attendant is now suddenly wealthy, and this final sequence is his triumph. He spends his inheritance at the same hotel, sharing his money generously. The money has given him back every bit of respect he had lost, and the ironic happy ending is complete.
And as I’m watching this movie, I get a text from my Dad that my Mom was just fired. She’s devastated. Now I need to stop the movie and call her. In 2015, the kind of community depicted in der Letzte Mann is largely gone, broken apart into wholly atomized individuals, alone, alienated, and completely responsible for all of their own problems.