The Last Command (Cert PG)
1 Disc Blu-ray/1 Disc DVD Dual Format (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 88 minutes approx.
It is ironic that the 2016 Oscars were overshadowed by accusations of racism and lack of diversity, yet the very first Oscars held back in the racially insensitive days of 1929 displayed anything but. Case in point, the very first recipient of the Best Actor award went to a German actor for his role in a film about the Russian Revolution, directed by an Austrian!
The Last Command is a stunning part drama-part satire from 1928, the second film made in Hollywood by Josef Von Sternberg. Set in Tinsel Town, top director Leo Andreyev (William Powell) is looking for extras for his next film and happens across a promising face among a pile of photos, belonging to a middle-aged man named Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings).
Sergius arrives at the Eureka (!) Studios along with a slew of other extras and is given the part of a Russian general. Some of the other actors complain about Sergius’s constant twitching, which he attributes to a prior trauma. Via flashback, we return to the Russian Revolution a decade earlier where Sergius, cousin to the Czar, was a Grand Duke and commander of the Russian army.
From the above summary it might appear that this story is about Sergius and a possible return to glory by wowing Andreyev with an utterly convincing and credible performance of his former real life role. But that is not the case and that is the beauty of this tale from Lajos Bíró, the basic premise of which is based loosely on a genuine situation as told to Bíró by Ernst Lubitsch!
The bitter, dark irony of the story is that Sergius was a brutish general and his family connection to the Czar not only boosted his ego but also left him untouchable. However an uprising was stirring and two actors were caught, purported to be two of the most dangerous revolutionaries. One is Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), a woman who bewitches Sergius so that he takes her in for himself and smothers her with gifts and his loving attention.
As for the other actor, he was none other than Leo Andreyev, whom Sergius hit with a whip and had imprisoned. Eventually the Imperial Army was overthrown and Sergius ousted but he was saved by Natalie’s love for him while Andreyev never forgot. In a cruel twist of fate, and an act of pure cruelty, a broken and aged Sergius is now being forced to recreate the very role of his past in a film about the Russian revolution.
It’s rare in cinema to have the ostensive villain of the piece be the central focus and indeed is a brave move but this is a story which requires such boldness. It divides the audience’s sympathies and feelings towards Sergius whom we first meet as a shuffling, bewildered old man trying to get by in a busy world, shunted and bustled by the others around him in the film studio.
Switching back to his time as a haughty and often uncompromising army commander, the change is one we can’t put down to the hubris of youth certainly not under the circumstances of the time. Room for any sympathy for this archetypal Russian bear is negligible nor does he deserve any, yet once Natalie enters his life, Sergius mellows a little and wins her heart through a mutual recognition that their patriotism towards Mother Russia is simply different from each other.
This is about as political as the film gets and the sense of balance is kept even once the oppressed masses exact their revenge against their bullying overlords through violence and public humiliation. Any temptations by Von Sternberg to use this as a vehicle for decrying communism have been wisely resisted, letting both himself and Hollywood off the hook in trying to score propaganda points.
But this isn’t necessary, as primarily this is a story about the people and less about the situations which bound them. Von Sternberg may have cast the most well known actor in German cinema at that point in what initially seems like a small role of humble movie extra but this perfectly illustrates the maxim of “You meet plenty of people on the way up, don’t mess with them as you’ll meet them on the way down”.
Justly rewarded at the Oscars as discussed earlier, Emil Jannings doesn’t let Von Sternberg or the audience down with his astutely defined essaying of Sergius. Even with the heavy make-up to age him, the impression created is of two different people, such is the astonishingly believable change in character and physical presence. The defining moment comes in the final act – I’ll say no more except this is a devastating scene.
It might come as a shock to some to see dapper favourite and future Thin Man William Powell in such a cynical and joyless role but his sharp looks and dark eyes lend themselves to the complex layers of Andreyev’s character. The nuances of Evelyn Brent’s portrayal of Natalie are less apparent due to the dual personality she is forced to adopt as “a prisoner of war and a prisoner of love”.
What also makes this film stand out is the German influence Von Sternberg brings to it. This may be a Hollywood film – distributed by Paramount, mostly American actors and the script in English – but it has that European derring-do about the way it approaches its subject. The visuals are also grandiose without being overly staged and the shots often composed for depth and to create the right mood.
Given a new lease of life via Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series on Blu-ray The Last Command can now show modern film fans why it deserves to be recognised in its own right as one the great late period silent films instead of the answer to a trivia question. A smart and haunting film rich in both historical and cinematic value.
New High Definition 1080p Presentation
Original Organ Score by Gaylord Carter
Video Interview with Critic Tony Rayns
Sternberg Till ’29 – A Video Essay by Tag Gallagher
32 Page Booklet
Rating – ****
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