Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz (titles)
Based on a Story by: Josef von Sternberg, Lajos Biró
Starring: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Josef von Sternberg was a major player in late silent and early sound cinema. His popularity reached its peak with the hugely successful and acclaimed Blue Angel (which I reviewed here a few years ago – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2013/01/the-blue-angel/). However, not long after this, some of the subsequent films he made with Angel’s star Dietrich failed at the box office and he also fell out with Ernst Lubitsch, then head of production at Paramount. So he lost control over his pictures and his career soon fizzled out. A number of Sternberg’s early films have been lost, but The Last Command, one of his breakthrough hits, remains and Eureka have felt fit to add it to their Masters of Cinema series.
The Last Command opens in Hollywood in 1928 where a successful Russian director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), is trying to cast a film he’s making about the Russian revolution. When looking through a pile of head shots he comes across the face of Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings). This elderly gent was actually a former Russian general so is perfect for the part and, as we learn through a lengthy flashback, crossed paths with Andreyev in the past, as the director used to be a revolutionary. The flashbacks also show that a woman tied their stories together, Andreyev’s lover, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who was also a revolutionary. Realising that the general was fond of her, Natalie seduced her way into his inner circle and plotted to kill him. However, the more time she spent with him, the more she sympathised with him and realised he loved his country as much as she did. So the film charts her dilemma before showing the audience what Andreyev has in store for his former enemy.
I really liked the film’s set-up. The central premise is a fairly unique and intriguing one and the ‘modern day’ sections in Hollywood are a witty satire of the studio system, with extras herded like cattle (or marched like soldiers as the film alludes) and the crew treating their work like that on a production line. There’s a great shot that tracks Alexander from window to window of the prop and costume stores where he’s unceremoniously thrown his gear to make him a general again.
I wasn’t as big a fan of the Russian-set flashbacks though, which make up a large proportion of the film. They’re decent enough, but I found the mid-section dragged a bit. This section picks up towards the end though when the revolutionaries take over the general’s train, leading to a dramatic climax. The final 20 minutes, when we come back to 1928, are very effective too. We see all the elements of the film coming together which cause Alexander to dig deeper and deeper into his past, leading him closer to either breakdown or revelation.
This leads me on to the film’s greatest assets – Jannings’ performance and his character in general. It’s a fascinating role, with the period setting portraying a confident and powerful man, whilst the framing ‘modern day’ scenes present the frail and broken shell of a tormented soul. Jannings covers both bases perfectly and in the train hijacking sequence we see that transition take place quite naturally (although it’s a showier performance than in modern films). The film also does a good job of presenting Alexander as an arrogant monster yet giving his actions enough motivation to provide empathy for his eventual plight.
Another aspect of the film I liked was how Andreyev’s intentions towards Alexander are never clear. You’re not sure whether he’s hired the former general to simply add authenticity to his film or to humiliate him. This creates tension towards the finale and the eventual conclusion still isn’t totally clear, allowing for an ending ripe for discussion afterwards.
So there are several facets at play that create an intriguing and classy melodrama, but my interest did wane in the mid-section and it didn’t offer as many stylistically exciting flourishes as some of my favourite silent films. So I won’t give it the highest of ratings. Fans of early cinema will find much to admire though, so I would recommend people check it out.
The Last Command is out on 16th May on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is decent for a film of its age, but it’s softer and less impressive than some of Eureka’s bigger-name silent restoration jobs.
For special features you get a video interview with critic Tony Rayns and Sternberg Till ‘29, a video essay by scholar Tag Gallagher. These are both rich with well-researched history and insight as usual (both critics/historians regularly crop up Masters of Cinema releases).
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which makes for recommended reading as always.