The Last Command (USA, 1928)

SFP+LAST+COMMANDDirected by: Josef von Sternberg. Ah, shame on me for waiting this long to dive back into Sternberg. From all the stuff I saw in my undergrad, one of the most enduring and valuable courses was an intensive focus on the filmographies of three great German directors: Murnau, Stroheim, and Sternberg. I loved all of them in their way, and I loved getting acquainted with the language of silent film, getting a chance to get past the cultural hump of my MTV-ADD-90’s upbringing to appreciate the art form on its own, as only hours and hours of compulsory viewing can do. After the 4-hour cut of Stroheim’s Greed, this little thing was a slice! Our focus on Sternberg must have started with the talkies and the Dietrich era, because the earliest I remember was The Blue Angel, featuring the great Emil Jannings as a befuddled, bespectacled school teacher who becomes enamoured with Marlene Dietrich (and why wouldn’t he?). This triumvirate of Sternberg silents, collected in a Criterion set that I might have to look at, looks pretty darn interesting to me, and if the other two are as good as The Last Command, then I’ll be happy. Although, honestly, I’m sure George Bancroft is good, but a huge part of the appeal here is my man Emil Jannings. I got to see a lot of him with the Murnau stuff—The Last Laugh and Faust alone are so incredible—but this performance is absolutely incredible, and much more approachable and relatable in a way. This is such a striking film in so many ways—the way it starts, with that big lineup at the Hollywood studio as the old general lines up for his costume, it reminds me so much of that one scene in Kafka’s first unfinished novel (unfinished by him and by me), Amerika, a view of America from the eyes of a European. The Hollywood studio is the most disorganized, chaotic, riotous and oppressive cesspool of human activity, and the spectacle of it, as conveyed through Sternberg is so busy—here, using humans themselves as the dense, crowded, mise-en-scène that will grow to ludicrous extremes by the time he makes The Scarlett Empress. We see this again as the revolution takes over, the sheer menace of the crowd, the terror of your fellow man, consuming this guy whole. Through it all, Jannings is the self-possessed, whole, noble individual for whom the world is too much, and his stasis and permanence and gravity are the perfect aesthetic counterweight to the upheaval and chaos erupting constantly around him. This comes up over and over—the great scene where the fellow extras make him stand on the table while they dangle his military medal away from him, erupting in laughter over god-knows-what while Jannings is trying to keep it together. And really, there’s this sense of keeping it together in his performance—he’s an absolute wreck of a man, and all it takes is that look on his face and a bit of exaggerated shaking, and we can feel how tremendously fragile he is and what a tremendous undoing of his whole being must have taken place, and that he could just come undone at any moment. That early stuff sets the stage very well for the middle act, showing us the noble Russian general and his eventual downfall and humiliation in the revolution. Those scenes showing us the Russian town are absolutely breathtaking. Another great joy I get from silent films, and from older films generally, is the mixture of the grandiose and the quaint that comes across as a result of the practical effects—they had to actually build a Russian town, and through the placement of extras, of a small train on set, and the sweeping camera movement, Sternberg conveys the hustle and bustle of pre-revolutionary Russia. It’s so grandiose and huge, but to my modern eyes, also quaint and contained because I can see that, because they had to actually make the sets and cram the extras in there, they had to make a relatively small “street” set. The results are amazing, and this whole middle section is great to watch—the jarring disjunction from the shaking wreck of man compared to the self-composed and utterly dignified general of the war. It’s no wonder Jannings got the Oscar—the first ever Best Actor Oscar actually—and it’s interesting to see how little has changed in that sense: with the character’s transformation and the appeal for sympathy with conveying an emotionally shattered protagonist, it’s quite possibly the first instance of Oscar-bait, too. But yeah, I gotta hand it to Jannings, this is some quality stuff. And Evelyn Brent is more than able to keep up with the high bar Jannings sets, giving us a leading lady that’s so interesting, whose psychology remains impossible to guess up to the very end. I found it a bit hard to swallow that she would flip flop around like she does, pretending that she was just pretending, but then coming back and professing that she loved him all along, etc. It makes for some interesting dramatic acrobatics I guess, and either way, she’s so damn good in it. Likewise, William Powell as the revolutionary guy who becomes a studio director, he does a great job with what little he has to do. I had thoughts about the whole conceit of the movie, how it’s an overt pandering to anti-communist sentiment of the era, but also a kind of subtle jab at Western life generally, and modern life, and maybe American consumerism as filtered through Hollywood itself. This general is just so dramatically and utterly the last noble human being on the earth, and nothing that the film shows us gives us any indication that theres’ anything worth fighting for in this compromised present. That’s pretty interesting! Not to mention all the interesting stuff about the transformation of history to Hollywood film, which this film makes explicit. (The great exchange between the assistant director and the general over his fake prop medals: When the general tells him that he was a Russian general and the medal goes on the left side, the assistant director angrily tells him “I’ve worked on over 20 Russian war films! Don’t tell me where the medal goes!”) And I also had a thread where I noticed some parallels (hear me out) between Jannings’ facial tics and his balancing of exaggeration and suppression, and the performances of Tom Hardy which, though certainly nudging more towards exaggeration to date, I believe have great potential as he progresses throughout his career. But leaving  that aside, this is a great film, merits some re-watching, and a source of great joy to me, sheer aesthetic pleasure, in a way that a lot of films just don’t have, and which would have been utterly lost on me if I wasn’t able to watch silent films.

One response to “The Last Command (USA, 1928)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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