January 31, 2020
The Last Command – U.S., 1928
The first Academy Awards in 1928 were pretty good to Josef Von Sternberg. His film Underworld won Ben Hecht the first statue for Original Story, a category that was discontinued in 1956. Interestingly, the only other film in contention was The Last Command, also directed by Von Sternberg. Emil Jannings took home the first Best Actor award for his performances in The Last Command and The Way of the Flesh, from which sadly only about three and a half minutes of footage survive. (1928 was the only year in which nominees could win for multiple films.) And to top all that off, The Last Command, according to John Harkness’s The Academy Award Handbook at least, was nominated for Best Picture, so all in all, a rather successful year.
Underworld is a film about a gangster and his relationship with his girlfriend, Feathers, which starts him on a downward spiral involving jealousy and distrust. In The Last Command, Von Sternberg turned his lens toward the Soviet Union and told a story of post-revolution tragedy. It is not a film that looks at Czarist Russia with regret or longing for what had been lost, nor does it present the revolutionaries as complete saints or innocent victims of state repression. Instead, it looks at these times with an objective view. There were decent people on all sides; there were unscrupulous people on all sides. For every army general we see partying as soldiers are sent off to their deaths, there’s a revolutionary whose only motivation for revolution seems to be to be able to physically abuse and verbally mock those who benefited during the Czar’s rule. In fact, the only person truly depicted as thoroughly imbecilic is the Czar himself.
The film begins in 1928 Hollywood, but most of it takes place in 1917 and the waning days of Russia’s involvement in the First World War. In 1928, we learn that a Russian director has come to Hollywood to shoot a film for which droves of extras will be needed. In a stack of head shots, he comes across one of an older gentleman who claims he used to be a Grand Duke in the Russian Army. He is of course chosen to be in the film, but the look on the director’s face is not one of mere satisfaction at having cast the part; there’s something else in his eyes – a look of recognition, perhaps? Later, the old man will add a medal to his costume, a gift, he explains to his mocking co-workers, from the Czar himself. The remark is met with derision, yet soon the film flashes back to 1917, and we see the veracity of his story and the events that led to his fall from grace.
The flashbacks can be said to comprise of two parts. In the first, the Grand Duke meets and decides to woo a woman named Natalie, who may be a revolutionary. The Grand Duke seems to be judging her with his libido, making the assessment that a woman who is that attractive couldn’t possibly be an enemy. In his defense, Natalie is suspect is being part of the Resistance, not a spy for whom seduction and murder would be a requirement of the job. Still, she doesn’t give the Grand Duke much in the way of encouragement, which renders the Grand Duke a little foolish. Exactly which signs is he misreading?
In the second part of the film, the resistance makes their move, and the Grand Duke’s fate is decided. He will leave that part of the film the broken man we see in the opening scenes of the film. These scenes are emotional, frighteningly violent, and extremely well filmed. Their closest equivalents are the climaxes of Eisenstein’s Strike and The Battleship Potempkin. Von Sternberg captures the madness of the moment, the crowds thirst for blood, and the army’s lack of concern for civilian casualties. Von Sternberg shows the Grand Duke being practically stripped of his honor and manhood, while simultaneously giving us views into the revenge-crazy eyes of the crowd shouting for the death of anyone they view as sending their countrymen into a war that is not theirs. Von Sternberg shows both sides committing what would today be viewed as war crimes. I was blown away by these scenes.
If I have a complaint about the film, it is its unsatisfying portrayal of Natalie. This is a character who begins the film vowing that the days are numbered for those who are “dragging Russia down.” Clearly, this includes the Grand Duke, but after a few dinners, gifts, and a heartfelt patriotic comment, she’s portrayed as suddenly losing her resolve. Why? I thought it was just a pick-up line, one a woman like Natalie would clearly have seen right through, yet there she is a few scenes later looking starry-eyed and melting into the Grand Duke’s big arms as he utters one of the corniest and most problematic lines I’ve heard in some time: “From now on, you are my prisoner-of-war…and my prisoner-of-love.”
The Last Command features a stunning performance by Emil Jannings. In fact, I can’t think of a movie that Jannings is not astonishing in. Here, he starts the film out physically and emotionally broken, and he fully embodies this, from his slow pace, and shaking head to the loss apparent in his eyes. And yet watch him as he takes out a medal he was given by the Czar. Jannings doesn’t smile or stand upright in pride; doing so would put him at odds with the audience. Instead, the way he does it reveals its significance to him: It is his way of signaling that despite the toll his experiences have had on him, he has not been broken, and he is not ashamed. Also stellar in the film is Evelyn Brent as Natalie. While there are problems with the arc of the character, those are not reflected in her confident, emotional performance. In a way, she has the harder role of the two leads. She has to go from embracing violence to expressing appreciation and even love for the man who she formerly viewed as her enemy. And then there’s her turn toward the end. Look at her eyes. They pierce your soul and send you on a roller coaster of emotions. That she wasn’t nominated for Best Actress is a travesty.
The Last Command remains an unforgettable film. It contains commentary on Hollywood that is both humorous and enormously telling. Parts of it are filmed in a way that fully convey the luxury afforded to the ruling class (The Grand Duke is the Czar’s cousin.), while others bring to mind the chaos of war and revolution and remind us that often what defines heroes and villains is simply the viewpoint of the victor. Is the ending a bit too conventional? Perhaps, but it may not have been in 1928. Even now, it has the power to bring a tear to even the most hardened of moviegoers, and that says something. The Last Command is truly one for the ages. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s 3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg)
4 and a half stars
*The Last Command is a silent film.