Criterion Collection · Drama · Silent Film · United States

#530 The Last Command (1928)

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#530 The Last Command

1928 // USA // Josef von Sternberg

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Emil Jannings, a Swiss-born German actor, earned the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929 with his performance in Josef von Sternberg directed silent film The Last Command. Long before working in Hollywood, “The Magic Empire of The Twentieth Century! The Mecca of the World!” as the opening title cards described, Jannings had already gained an international reputation by starring in Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919), Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), to name a few. The last Command being his second features for Paramount Pictures (and the only one out of the seven films survive in intact condition) further reinforced his formidable status as the greatest silent film actor. His collaboration with Sternberg later flourished further in the German-production talkie The Blue Angel (1930) which famously launched the career of Marlene Dietrich.

Jannings’ theatricality in body language and expressiveness in facial expression echoed with the German Expressionism, he fully utilized his skills in the duality performance in The Last Command. He portrayed a character in two contrasting roles, the aristocratic, stern and arrogant Russian Grand Duke General Sergius Alexander, and the shell-shocked pitiful Hollywood extra Sergius Alexander. We first met Alexander as a to-be-hired extra via a casting photo on the hand of the Russian director (William Powell), a description stating “Little experience. Works for $7.50 a day” at the back of the photo suggested a deprived condition he was under. The film was bookended with the 1929-present-Hollywood segments, while a long flashback featuring the downfall of General Sergius Alexander in 1917 Russian Revolution was placed as the central piece.

The narrative framework bought about an intriguing view in comparing the Hollywood studio with the military in a war-torn country. The director was authorized with the full power control in filmmaking (arguably an ironic fantasy rather than reality as commonly known the producer and the studio head were the true rulers) while the General was the commander-in-charge. The cigarettes and uniform were used as the symbolic indicated of power. Film assistants competed to light the cigarette for the director signifying a fight to please the supremacy; a solider dressed up secretly in the General’s fur coat and puff his cigar implying the desire for power, so much so that he would betray without remorse during the up-rising and take the coat, thus the status, into possession. The extras, on the other hand, were depicted as an unorganized army, following the chain of command.

Jannings’ character was portrayed with a deep sympathy. We witnessed the humiliation he encountered in the present day, he was teased of his uncontrollable shaking head and being poked fun at the medal which he received from the Czar in his past glorious days. Most harshly, he was selected to play as a Russian General, a surrgoate of his own past, in the film. The ludicrous fate of the Russian director being the same revolutionist the General once tormented of seemed to be a convenient plot device, and the General’s “Romeo and Juliet” type love story with the female revolutionist Natalie (Evelyn Brent) sounded overtly cheesy, yet Sternberg unapologetically used the melodrama to intensify human disgrace and degradation, in no less overcome all the drawbacks.

Photographer Bert Glennon, perhaps most well-known for the cinematography in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), had a fruitful working relationship with Sternberg since Underground (1927). The magnificent panning shot while Jennings pushing through the crowd of extras to get his General costume or the moment of disgrace when he was shoved by the furious mob of revolutionists towards the hijacked train, in both scenarios the camera induced a suffocating effect, progressively reached the climatic high point in which the ex-General finally lost his sanity at the filming of a trench battle scene. The superimposed ghostly face of fellow ferocious Russians bought out the ex-General last exclamation ” The command is forward—to victory. Long Live Russia!”, as well as his destined demise. Jannings’ tour-de-force performance as a man who fell from grace ironically foretold his career failure after WWII after serving Nazism, yet his talent was indelibly captured and never be forgotten.
Film Rating: 4.5/5
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