‘The Man Who Laughs’ or — The Eyes Have It?

(No spoilers)

A young boy, Gwynplaine, is disfigure by a surgeon on orders of the King, his mouth carved into a permanent grin so he might forever laugh at his fool of a father who dared oppose his monarch. The father is dragged to an iron maiden whilst the young boy is deserted in the snow. Whilst struggling for survival Gwynplaine discovers a blind baby girl, Dea, in the arms of her frozen mother and these two outcasts find refuge with the kindly, though somewhat exploitative, “Father” Ursus.

Over the years Gwynplaine becomes famous as The Laughing Man, a part of Ursus’ travelling carnival, even if the constant sound of laughter at his unchangeable appearance weighs heavy on his heart. It’s a heart that belongs to Dea, who would marry Gwynplaine but he is tormented by the fact she will never see his face and that if she could she would reject him outright, her constant reassurances that she loves him for who he is inside unable to shatter his self-loathing. If only he knew a woman could love him despite his appearance, then he could let go of his shame and marry Dea with a secure heart.

Yet what would happen if a woman knew what he looked like and still desired him? And, more importantly, what would happen if a woman loved him who knew who he really was?

All I knew about Paul Leni’s ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) is that Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine influenced (MASSIVELY) Batman’s Joker and boy, that’s an understatement. It’s not just the grin but even the hair and eyes were lifted to create the Dark Knight’s arch nemesis. Throughout the film there’s countless moments where you could almost believe this was a Joker origin story written by Victor Hugo. What stops this being the case is that, unlike the Joker, Gwynplaine is utterly and completely human with a tender and breakable heart. The grin might be iconic but that’s not who he is; with the Joker, that’s often all he is.

This humanity is portrayed through a remarkable performance by Veidt who expresses Gwynplaine’s pain, sadness, joy, fear etc through his eyes and hands, the brief passing of them across his mouth able to instantly, and radically, alter his countenance. Although, touching though Veidt’s performance is, I was even more captivated by the scheming royals who get to revel in the role of the baddies. The sexually hedonistic Duchess might be my favorite (just what WAS she up to down the fair?) who attempts to seduce Gwynplaine with gusto and I love how we don’t get to know just what exactly the pissed-off Queen says to her when scolding the naughty Duchess. But we have an idea.

If the acting’s impressive then what director Paul Leni does with the camera is even more so because ‘The Man Who Laughs’ is one seriously dynamic movie. The film feels constantly bristling with life with a fresh and modern sensation to the point I completely forgot this film is almost one hundred years old. There’s a wonderful push-pull camera move when the Duchess dashes into her coach after visiting the fair that’s as smooth as butter on hot toast and the dissolve when she notices she has caught Gwynplaine’s eye on the stage is magical.

Then there’s the art design which allows the film to leap from the romantic to the terrifying, the lustful to the pure, with effortless ease. Gwynplaine’s trudge through the snow feels like a child’s nightmare whilst the moment when Dea tentatively approaches the lights at the front of the stage is gorgeous and filled with potential tragedy.

But nightmare and tragedy are only a part of this tale because ‘The Man Who Laughs’ also contains excitement, action, some swashbuckling, horror elements, intrigue, sex and quite a lot of comedy, again, nearly all courtesy of those naughty royals. Gwynplaine gets a rousing speech that must have influenced ‘The Elephant Man’s famous declaration and towards the end I found myself cheering “Hooray for Homo!” (don’t worry; it makes sense when you see it).

‘The Man Who Laughs’ is fantastic. It’s exciting, captivating, moving, energetic and oh so very gorgeous to behold (I guess sometimes looks DO matter). The story is clear and engaging and kept me guessing constantly as to where it was all going — I knew it was going to end in tears but would they be tears of joy or sadness?

Watch ‘The Man Who Laughs’ and find out!

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards


Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.