Reviews and notes
2008 New York
The Last Command
starts from a brilliant script idea: a Czarist general, defeated in the Russian revolution, finds himself down and out in Hollywood, working for peanuts as a bit-player in movies; he is spotted and hired by his former adversary, a Mayakovskian stage director turned Hollywood film-maker; and both men loved the same woman ten years earlier. Half the movie is an acid vision of the gap between success and the breadline in contemporary Hollywood, and the other half is a long flashback to revolutionary Russia, with the general seducing the woman Communist, imprisoning his rival, falling from power, and discovering abject humiliation. In other words, this is the first Sternberg masterpiece, the first of his glitteringly stylised rhapsodies of commitment and betrayal, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia. Even more incredible, the sheer sophistication of Sternberg's visuals makes nearly all current releases look old-fashioned.
- Tony Rayns, Time Out.
Improbable as it may seem, The Last Command
(1928), Josef von Stemberg's hymn to the end of empires, was based on a true story. The path this tale took to reach the screen is also as perfect an illustration of the warped, gossipy machinations of Hollywood as you could find. Director Ernst Lubitsch once met a former Russian general in New York, who was running a restaurant. After encountering the same man in Hollywood, reduced to working as an extra for $7.50 a day, he told the man's story to actor Emil Jannings, suggesting that he might like to play such a character. The twist was that in California, the Russian was being paid scraps to play the role he once inhabited in real life – that of a general in the imperial army. Jannings then told the story to screenwriter Lajos Biró, who began work on a script and repeated the anecdote back to Lubitsch, crediting Jannings with the discovery. Von Steinberg filmed Biró's screenplay as The Last Command
, and Lubitsch's general was duly given a bit part.
There's more. After the film was released, when Paramount was sued for plagiarism by a third party; Biró pointed at Jannings, who pointed at Lubitsch – who, having been denied the credit earlier, refused to take it just to save the studio from making a settlement. Years later von Steinberg, in his immodest memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry
, cut out the middlemen by claiming sole credit for the screenplay, dismissing Biró and claiming that Lubitsch saw no potential in his own "meagre but very good idea". One can only hope that the general spent his $ 7.50 wisely.
Authorial quibbles aside, The Last Command
, which is set both in contemporary Hollywood ("The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century!") and pre-revolutionary Russia ("Proud, majestic, haughty – seemingly eternal as the ages!"), is a masterpiece. In the Hollywood scenes, Sergius Alexander, a humbled, quivering wreck played by Jannings, is hired by dictatorial director Leo Andreyev (a debonair William Powell) for a small but crucial scene in a war film. Chided by a fellow extra for his constant trembling, Alexander replies that he can't help it: "I had a great shock once."
The Hollywood sequences bookend the main substance of the film – the pairs previous encounter in Russia in 1917, with Jannings as the puffed-up general arresting Powell the tattered revolutionary and marching off with his sweetheart. The dramatic tension doubles, as the film promises us both Andreyev's revenge at the studio and the revelation of Alexander's "great shock" in Russia.
It is a woman who breaks Alexander's heart, naturally, in an icy trauma that follows some intricate plotting and lashings of brutality and mortification. That woman is Evelyn Brent's glamorous revolutionary, who holds Alexander's fate as well as his heart in her grasp. One of the film's many pleasures is Brent's swift and shocking transformation from enigmatic beauty to riotous woman of passion, wielding a revolutionary flag while wearing pearls.
It is Jannings's performance that carries the film, though – recalling his work in The Last Laugh
(Der letze Mann 1924), another tale of a proud man in uniform brought low. For this, and for the lost film The Way of All Flesh
, he won the first Academy Award for best actor. Jannings finds the humanity inside the tsarist military leader, and the fight inside the spirit-broken extra, with both incarnations fired by Alexander's undimmed patriotism.
Even so, von Sternberg's superlative direction most distinguishes this film. Precociously, he frames complex shots that other directors would linger over, and dashes them away in favour of a quick dissolve into a tighter set-up, a new angle. The blizzard of compositions in the films transition to the Russian snow is bewilderingly impressive. It also seems like an in-joke on the film's theme of perfect artificiality beating truth – if von Sternberg can make a small set dredged in fake snow appear like Russia, then Alexander's final on-set hallucination is inevitable. After all, the jostling extras picking up their uniforms and guns look just like new recruits – or Alexander's own army.
In one of the films best jokes (courtesy of title-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz), when Alexander presumes to place his own medals on his costume-uniform, a jumped-up assistant director tells him: "I've made 20 Russian pictures. You cant tell me anything about Russia!" And in Russia, while there is areal war to be fought, Alexander must recall his troops to parade in front of the tsar, a spectacle as hollow as Andreyev's studio trench.
- Pamela Hutchison, Sight & Sound, July 2016.
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