Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Commanding von Sternberg… The Last Command (1928)

In the 1920s, there was a Hollywood extra with an unusual background, one General Lodijensky, who had fled Russia after the defeat of Tsar Nicholas’ forces in the revolutions of 1917. Josef von Sternberg, himself a refugee of sorts, recognised the dramatic potential of this huge fall from grace in his 1928 classic, The Last Command.

Preston Sturges once referred to The Last Command as the only perfect film he had ever seen and he knew more than most… it’s certainly a sophisticated, well conceived and highly satisfying viewing experience. One that pulled the whole family in as another of dad’s dvd-hogging sessions became a gripping entertainment for the others aged 14 to 78…

Von Sternberg is understandably lauded as one of the great directors and with this, only his second full studio film, he showed the surety of purpose present even in the self-funded debut, The Salvation Hunters. This debut brought him to the attention of Chaplin who was impressed with the ambition and focused lyricism of the picture.

Von Sternberg seems more than many to deliver his message through all the elements on display. He uses the relationship between his performers and the lighting, scenery and other background elements to emphasise and communicate the emotions and the story. The main character’s humiliation and marginalisation is emphasised by his being stuck behind the studio gates and dragged across numerous windows to have his costume literally thrown at him bit by bit.

The power of the film's director and the general are shown by their being sat and surrounded by others crowded around their shoulders, lighting their cigarettes and “serving” them. The fervour of revolutionary and war leader is mirrored by huge flowing flags carried by the proponents as they channel the passionate beliefs inherent in those symbols.

This is perhaps the very definition of the auteur and certainly with The Last Command von Sternberg does indeed appear to “command” everything.

The film starts off with a powerful Hollywood director trying to select the right men to play in a film about the Great War. He cannot seem to find the right kind of look and then suddenly he comes across just the right man to play the general.

The man, Emil Jannings, is summoned and processed along with hundreds of other extras in a revealing vignette of the life of the extras we always take for granted.

The man looks frail and old, constantly shaking his head as if in disbelief… a habit he has had since he suffered a “great shock”. He is mocked by his fellow extras and humiliated when he pulls out a genuine medal – given to him by the Tsar – to add to his costume.

A fade… and we are back in the War and the story of how this man came to grow so old and sad.

In 1917, General Dolgorucki - Grand Duke Sergius Alexander – had been one of the most powerful men in all Russia, a cousin of the Tsar and in command of a large part of his army.

He enjoys the trappings of power and plays with two suspected revolutionaries they capture. The man, Lev Andreyev (a young William Powell) he hits with a whip and sends straight to prison but the woman, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) interests him in a different way and he decides that she shall stay with him. We fear the worst.

Natalie plots to kill the general but soon learns that he is an honourable man whose greatest concern is the well-being of his beloved Russia. Dolgorucki senses her plans and gives her the opportunity to use her concealed weapon trusting in his judgement of her personality. He is right and she cannot kill a man who loves their country so much.

From this point on he keeps her as his “prisoner of war and his prisoner of love”.

Meanwhile the War is going badly and the Tsar’s time is running out. Revolutionary forces begin to gather including those marshalled by Andreyev who manages to escape.

Natalie and the general are enjoying the luxuries of an imperial train ride until it is stopped by rebels. The general starts to face them down but is undermined by his own men and then, startlingly, by Natalie who appears to reveal her true colours… or does she?

Cut forward a decade and the general is being made to re-enact a war scene in Andreyev’s film. Yet things do not turn out the way that either man expects. It is dramatic and emotional - an unexpected and complex ending that speaks of the durability of loyalty, love and honour.

It’s also a meditation on the fact that those who love Russia, love Russia and there is not as much between them as they may have imagined or wanted.

Last time I watched Evelyn Brent she was playing Louise Brooks’ sensible sister in Love ‘em and Leave ’em. She did pretty well up against the precocious young dancer and you could sense that there was more depth there.

In The Last Command Brent is superb as she goes from revolutionary ice maiden to compliant concubine, rabid revolutionary and passionate partner willing to risk all. Her performance is controlled meaning that we’re never sure of her true feelings until the very end and the tragedy that crushes the general’s spirit. He shakes his head in disbelieving grief for the rest of his life…

Brooks was a little harsh on Brent as an actress but she praised his handling of her in this film and Underworld. You can also see why Brooks referred to Von Sternberg as the best director of women. He understood Brent and got a great performance from her in a variety of stunning costumes all strikingly lit and photographed - she looks amazing throughout with cheekbones that would give Marlene a run for her money.

But Brent was also in very fast company. Young Bill Powell is cast against what might be viewed as type, playing Brent’s former revolutionary partner and then the film director with revenge on his mind. He’s especially good towards the end when what he thinks is his total control of the situation breaks down into final tragedy.

But both are overshadowed by another immense and Oscar-winning, performance from Emil Jannings. There are elements of his fall from grace in The Last Laugh but this is a new creation from Jannings who seemed to have endless reserves of energetic expression. Not many actors could carry the pomp and power of the general in full command yet who has the subtlety to want to love his prisoner and not imprison her.

He is almost unrecognisable as the crushed character at the start of the film and yet, you can visibly trace his mental deterioration as the train is taken, he is betrayed and then suffers his tragic “shock”.

That he takes all this in his acting stride shows immense strength and flexibility. He never over-plays and is always making us look into him.

The Last Command is available as part of Criterion’s collection of von Sternberg’s three classics of the period (with Underworld and Docks of New York). It’s essential viewing and I shall savour the other two….


  1. Hi Ithankyou, I remember how unconfortable I felt by watching this movie, Emil Jennings seems so nervous and sick that it was painful to watch. A so-so film for me, I mean half boring-half good.
    I admire your blog, you're doing a tremendous job! Greetings, Caroline

  2. Thankyou very much Caroline!

    He is uncomfortable to watch - even more so in The Last Laugh - he really goes for it. It's a sad film but at least there's understanding and respect in the end.

    Evelyn Brent is amazing though and I've just watched her being equally impressive in Underworld.

    1. Underworld is probably more approachable, at least for me (Clive Brook is great in Underworld too!)

  3. Clive Brook's a real force of nature in that film! Considering its part in helping to kick start the genre, Underworld is a surprisingly subtle film in some ways...