The Last Command, 1928.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg.
Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell and Jack Raymond.
A former imperial Russian general, and a cousin to the fallen Tsar, ekes out a living as a Hollywood extra, and lands a role in a movie that, unbeknownst to him, is being directed by a former revolutionary.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, actor Emil Jannings had already established himself as a notable star of silent cinema with prior credits such as The Last Laugh and Faust. The critical acclaim surrounding these films marked Janning’s as a formidable German actor, which fuelled his reputation as one of the greats. The Last Command would not be an exception, for it would garner him (take note film buffs) the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the very first Oscars. While this is due to a technicality – it may have actually gone to a dog named Rin Tin Tin had the Academy not wised up before the final ballot to remove an animal from the acting category – Jannings’ performance as a the Russian expatriate Sergius Alexander evokes much empathy, sorrow, and pity from its audience that it is a well deserved award. (And for extra informative spice, unlike many other German émigrés of the 1930s, Jannings returned to Germany, and happily starred in Nazi propaganda films. Needless to say, after the fall of the Third Reich, he never worked again.)
After receiving the call from a casting agent, Sergius arrives at Eureka Studio to be issued a uniform, and is horded into the dressing rooms along with dozens of other extras. This moment is laden with satirical commentary of Hollywood’s mechanised filmmaking practices, notably a tracking shot of Sergius arriving at each hatchway to present another slip in order to receive another part of the uniform, yet all the hatchways lead into the same huge room. This is an interesting snipe considering this film is financed by Paramount and it is a contract picture. Moreover, it was regarded by the studio as simple a star vehicle for the lead actor.
At the dressing his involuntary head twitch distracts other cast members. Sergius apologises, telling them this is the result of a traumatic event in Russia ten years prior. The film then flashes back to Russia 1917: to the history buffs out there, this film is indeed going to be a fictionalised account of the Russian Revolution. Or more precisely, it is to be a romantic melodrama between General Sergius and revolutionary Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent). There romance blossoms from this space that disregards the others political difference; a mutual understanding of the others patriotism. As Sergius becomes increasingly smitten towards her her Revolutionary plans to exile this particular Tsarist elite undergoes a change. The film wisely does not allow Dabrova to discard her political agency – on the contrary, she is delightfully complicit in the shooting of one general at point-blank range at a drunken-fuelled party with no remorse – and instead she must find the opportune moment to secure Sergius’ safety.
During this flashback the intertitle’s are laden with black comedic quips, and sardonic political commentary. One striking intertitle, following an embittered battle between the Tsarists and the Bolsheviks, reads “After week – after thousands of men had spilled their blood to defend a few inches of earth – there came a lull between the storms.” It acknowledges the carnage Europe endured during the 1910s, and the geopolitical significance carries little weight when one measures the actual geography of space; its moments like these that strike against many other contemporary Hollywood star-vehicle pieces that focused on escapism rather than scathing commentary. There is also comedy that infers commentary on the Hollywood elite – after Sergius presents Dabrova with a necklace in private, the snobbish and nosy guests listen on in through the door, with one guest remarking that gifts “should always be done after caviar.” It’s downplayed, and the slapstick outcome keeps it light and jovial.
In complimenting the smart screenplay are the breathtaking visuals. There are an abundant of visual similarities between Sergius’ empowerment and consequential downfall, and revolutionary-cum-director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) own current Hollywood status; this comparison emphasises the caution studios should take (and in hindsight, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 cannot be viewed without irony). The shot of a battalion – willing to defend the Tsar – which is composed of a hundred- plus extras standing outside a palace, awaiting their order to fight, is bold, striking, and a reminder of a time long before CGI; yes, there are indeed lots of people standing there in front of a monolithic structure.
The Last Command is an intelligent and important silent film that has great historic significance. In accompanying this Blu-Ray release is a video essay by scholar Tag Gallagher, who historicises Josef von Sternberg’s life and work, and there is an interview with Eureka Entertainment’s regular Tony Rayns, who provides historic context for this film on the key players of that went into making this film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★