The Man Who Laughs (1928): Echoes From German Expressionism

(Original Poster of Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, Uploaded from Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans)

Based on Victor Hugo‘s 1889 novel L’Homme qui rit (1889), The Man Who Laughs is an American silent film directed by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni during the transition between silent films and “talkies” (films with sound). I became interested in this film after I read a review by Roger Ebert, who portrayed it as “a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.” 1 After several viewings of this film, it became one of my favorites and it led to my discovering and studying German Expressionism for my senior thesis in college.

A story rooted in Romantic symbolism and brought to vivid life through German Expressionist techniques.

(Photograph of author Victor Hugo)

Victor Hugo wrote his original novel, penned in English at times as By Order of the King, in 1889 after the French government exiled him from France because of controversial political content in his previous works Les Miserables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1839).

Much like his previous novels, he attacked through Romantic symbolism and a dramatic plot the nobility who could not understand the hardships of the common people. For this novel, the protagonist Gwynplaine, with his permanent smile forced upon him by the will of a corrupt king, represented the masked suffering of the poor and abused in society. Mistreated from childhood, Gwynplaine eventually died quietly after throwing himself into the ocean to be reunited with his love Dea. Thus, the hero, played the fool his whole life, disappeared while his abusers continued oblivious to how they used and destroyed him.

Victor Hugo was a profound figure in literature because he delved deep into subjects that question people’s comprehension of God, love, leadership, politics and morality. He wrote about these issues despite the consequences which ensued from those in power. His novels addressed subjects his peers often avoided because it required them to seriously consider how their indifference to the suffering of the people had dire consequences. He brought to light peoples’ inner demons and focused on how character and virtue make a man, or woman, great; not birth, position, or worldly accomplishments.

As early as 1909, filmmakers have adapted Hugo’s infamous tragic novel into film. From the Austrian-Hungarian silent 1921 film Das Grinsende Gesicht to the French 2012 adaptation, this story has, in small ways, just like its hero Gwynplaine, found a voice. Among all of these films, Critics and viewers best remember Paul Leni’s 1928 culturally impactful masterpiece.

To see the unseen by the power of opposites

German Expressionism’s foundation came from distinct examples of sharp contrasting opposites, the roots of which came from as early as the Renaissance. Later, these artistic techniques came to fruition during the Romantic era, techniques which Victor Hugo himself used in his art and literature. As Stephen Rebello noted in The Art of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) concerning Hugo’s novels,

Hugo plays out a literary conceit of visual, aural, and moral contrasts and opposites: . . . light played against dark, appearance versus reality, good against evil, piety opposed to true faith, outward beauty contrasted with ugliness of the soul.

Stephen Rebello, The Art of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), pg 22

Collage of examples of chiaroscuro

Paintings of Caravaggio: Christ at the Column, Narcissus Paul Delatour: Saint Joseph the Carpenter. Chiaroscuro is defined in art as “the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition”. (via Wikipedia)

German Expressionism borrows heavily from Romantic ideologies. It thrived on outbursts of intense emotion, drew from sharp disjointed imagery to deeper showcase the human inner experience and used dualism to portray important moral issues. Knowing this, The Man Who Laughs was an ideal story to set as an Expressionist film.

The Man Who Laughs carries that gloom and dark intensity that persists in what we call classic horror films, echoes of German Expressionist films. As noted by the great film historian Lotte Eisner, “All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event…” (Lotte Eisner, The Haunted screen)

In many ways, this film is about Gwynplaine’s struggle to understand himself and accept his imperfections. Specific events in the movie are essential for him to obtain the necessary experience needed to foster such self-awareness. The story centers on visual chiaroscuro techniques and moral contrasts to more dramatically and clearly show his personal journey to understanding the truths hidden in a world of shadows and blinding lights.

This world of shadows and lights came directly from experienced German director Paul Leni. Paul Leni, or Paul Josef Levi, studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts as a painter and then joined the theater as a set designer throughout multiple Berlin theaters. A former Reinhardt collaborator, his work in the theater transferred to a film set and costume design in 1913. Known in Germany for films like Waxworks (1924) and The Cat and the Canary (1927), Leni was at heart a set designer. His sets specifically emphasized the lifelike qualities of inanimate objects, the use of space as a film technique to exemplify a given character’s state of mind, and the use of a story within a story to show how that which is superficial mirrors reality.  Leni surmised,

It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes. . . I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen every day and to attain its true sinews. . . he must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood (Stimmung) even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everyday eyes. It is this which makes him an artist.

Paul Leni, No. 911, Kinematograph, (1924)
(Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, via Roger Ebert review The Man Who Laughs)
(Joker from Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), via devianart.)

The actors and actresses chosen for this film were phenomenal. Paul Leni’s personal friend and film collaborator, Conrad Veidt stared as the protagonist Gwynplaine. Known for his role in other classic films like Casablanca (1942),  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Veidt wore complicated dentures and wires to give him the horrible grin which served as the inspiration for the Joker’s hideous smile. He could barely speak while wearing them, yet even under such painful conditions, he portrayed such powerful emotions both in his movements and his eyes. 

Mary Philbin, who starred as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), also gave an endearing performance as Dea, especially in how well she feigned blindness and showed compassionate empathy. Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova also captured the twisted, sensual character Josiana very well. 

Unlike Hugo’s novel, the film’s creators relied on these visuals to convey its story and symbolism. The dialogue would not carry the film. This was where the literary and artistic worlds converged. Through haunting backgrounds, thoroughly engaging acting and small quiet moments set in and for the hearts of its characters, the filmmakers painted for their audience a story of striking contrasts. Contrasting emotions they portrayed in the film like fear and faith, love and lust, and misery and hope played important roles in Gwynplaine’s transformation.

In essence, the story asks its audience to see the man behind the disfigured face and to recognize the ugliness in the hearts of the glittering nobility. For as the narrator says in the prologue for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), “But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.”  

(Shot of gallows with a young wandering Gwynplaine, via

The Story Unfolding like a Haunting Dream

The Man Who Laughs presents first the tragic death of Lord Dirry-Moir and the fate of his son at the hands of King James II and the Comprachicos. To add to Moir’s pain, they surgically altered the young boy’s face to have a permanent grin “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.” (text from the film) This sets in motion Gwynplaine’s story, a protagonist fated to live in a world where all who saw his disfigurement would reject him.

At the center of his life came Dea, an infant he had found in the arms of her dead mother when he, still a child, saved her life. Both of them are forgotten and torn from their families until the mountebank Ursus takes them in. As Gwynplaine and Dea both became older, they grow to deeply love each other. But he would not marry her because he feared her rejection if she knew of his disfigured face. 

Working with Ursus in their traveling freak show, Gwynplaine became The Laughing Man, a soul whose “behavior (was) defined by his deformity” (Dark Corners Reviews, “The Man Who Laughs: The Forgotten Universal Classic“). By watching his body language and eyes, it is possible to understand Gwynplaine’s mind and heart. Animator Glen Keane once talked of his experience working with Ollie Johnson, one of the best-known character animators of the Golden Disney Age. One of the foundational principles of character development he taught Glen Keane was in finding the humanity in more than what a character says. He said,

“You have to make it sincere, so that the audience will believe everything they do, all their emotions. Ask yourself: What is the character thinking and why does he feel this way?”

Ollie Johnson
(Photo found in The Hollywood Reporter, via Universal Pictures)
(Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine waiting between shows, via filmfanatic reviews)

Conrad Veidt, a true master of the silent era, showed vividly the inner struggle and misery Gwynplaine experienced because of his deformity. From the way he constantly covered his mouth, his hunched body language, and the horror and sorrow in his eyes, the audience can experience firsthand the picture of a man trapped by a smile that rarely spoke his true feelings.

(Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, via Classic Monsters)

The catalyst, which would break Gwynplaine from his world of fear, was an unexpected encounter and invitation from the Duchess Josiana after one of his shows. Rather than laugh at his horrific smile, Josiana wrote to Gwynplaine saying, “I am she who did not laugh. Was it pity, or was it love? My page will meet you at midnight.” Gwynplaine had no experience with this type of advancement, but he found what he thought could be his redemption.

Though warned by Ursus, he goes to see her, to know if there really could be a woman who loves him despite his looks. If that were so, he reasoned he could marry Dea. He went to Josiana and faced the depths of lustful deception. His desire to meet with her wasn’t perverse, but his misguided judgment placed him in an emotionally damaging setting.

(Conrad Veidt and Olga Baklanova, via Den of Geek, “The Man Who Laughs: The Scary Clown Movie That Inspired The Joker

Roger Ebert described well the intensity and tragedy of what next transpires.

Her interest is genuine, if perverse, although she has no idea where it will lead. He is tempted. In a way, he wants sex, which he has never experienced, and in another way, he wants to remain loyal to Dea — and yet he will never have intimacy with Dea until he reveals his secret, and he fears she could not love him after learning it. His scene with the duchess has a disturbing power because as he (no doubt) thinks of these things, Josiana attempts to kiss him, and we sense that her attraction to his mouth is cruel or fetishistic. He does not want to be kissed — or touched, or known — there.

Roger Ebert, The Man Who Laughs (2004)

Immediately when he crossed into Josiana’s room, he fell victim to her lustful desires and his own mortal limitations. His misguided judgment placed him in an emotionally damaging setting, for he saw ugliness within himself when faced with her lustful intentions. He hoped to find trust and love, but he could only experience repulsion and fear.

He finally rejected her and fled from her room after she laughed at him. Her cruelty crushed him, and he stated brokenheartedly as if his final hope shattered, “She laughed like all the others.”. By meeting with her, he did not find the respect and love he hoped for, but this encounter with Josiana set the foundation for what he needed.

(Veidt and Mary Philbin, “God Closed my eyes so I could see the true Gwynplaine”, via Apollo Magazine Review)

Many remember the previous scene with Josiana and forget what happened almost immediately after. Deeply hurt, Gwynplaine met Dea on the steps to their caravan. Despite fears of this rejection, after his horrible experience with Josiana, he made a life-changing, rash decision. After Dea awoke and felt him at her feet, he took Dea’s hands and placed them on his face, as if he finally had the courage to see if she could still love him, even knowing about his monstrous appearance.

Being blind, she could only rely on what she could feel with her hands. Whether she understood the extent of his deformity is unclear, but her loving reaction was powerful. She told him, “God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine.”. Through those words, she healed the pain and fear he had carried for most of his life. Naked relief and ecstatic joy replaced the fear and horror he had felt only minutes before. It was there he found the peace and reassurance he had been looking for.

Between pure love and licentious physical desire, between Josiana’s perverse attraction and Dea’s innocent love, we as an audience can see the stark difference they can make in a man’s life. Dea’s love and his courage are what bring him forward to the film’s dramatic conclusion. Beyond the truths and names given to Gwynplaine throughout his life, he came to know for himself his own worth.

Through a series of events, Queen Anne gave Gwynplaine a chance to regain his father’s status in the House of Peers and also a chance to marry Josiana. But The House of Peers is no different than the crowds which came to see him as The Laughing Man. They mocked and laughed at him just as others had. Despite their intentions, he rejects their plans for him. Living in that world, living away from the Dea, would be the end of him. Such a life would keep him from ever seeing himself as an equal human being.

(Veidt, Finally Free, via The Joker: How a German Silent Film Served as Inspiration For the Batman Villain)

It seemed too cruel to watch as the House of Peers laughed at him as he refused to enter into the marriage, yet it was then that everything became clear to him. He exclaimed with his head held high, perhaps the first time as a man and not as a laughable, tragic figure, “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!” Afterward, he escaped and joined his comrades on a ship leaving England. Unlike the original story, he found happiness and learned to see himself as God does.

Film, as art, strives to tell a visual story

When Universal Studios released The Man Who Laughs in 1928, it wasn’t a complete success financially or critically. Despite past failures, it became a powerful contribution to filmmaking and storytelling. This film unquestionably captured the inner struggle of a man ruled by his disfigurement; in how his peers perceived him as a freak and how he regarded himself in the same light. It also created an identifiable figure through Gwynplaine, a man fighting for love and identity.

It is the story of a man who allowed himself to love, found the courage to stand against cruelty, and triumphed in the end against those who sought to control his life. When I watch this film, I don’t see a tragic deformed figure like Quasimodo or the creature in Frankenstein. I see a man who found peace and realized true beauty is found within.


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