Monday, October 04, 2010


"I was in the Russian Army, and this medal was worn on the left."

Josef von Sternberg's THE LAST COMMAND, recently released in a very nice DVD from the folks at the Criterion Collection, has a lot to interest a fan of classic movies. The film's star, Emil Jannings, won the first Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in this film (along with another performance in WAY OF ALL FLESH), and any chance to see any film by the brilliant von Sternberg, who is still woefully under-represented on DVD, can't be missed.

As the film opens, a rather battered and fragile Russian emigre (Jannings) in Hollywood is hired to play the role of a Russian general in what seems to be a war film. See, the director of the film within the film, played by William Powell, has specifically chosen Jannings' photo from a stack of stock actor photos. It gradually becomes clear that Jannings has in fact been a highly decorated general in the Russian army, and that some kind of humiliating payback seems to be in store, as assorted studio flunkies and even Powell himself lay on the rudeness. In an extended flashback, which takes up much of the film, it turns out that Powell had in fact been active in the Russian revolution and was tossed into prison by none other than Jannings himself. Jannings even had, it turns out, the bad taste to appropriate Powell's female partner in political extremism as his mistress, and it goes along from there.

Von Sternberg keeps the energy up at all times, and there's a lot of good fun to be had. The Hollywood studio system gets some good ribbing, and the comparisons between Movie Director and Military Leader are interesting and amusing. Unfortunately, the storyline just one step too far. The way that nobody seems to be affected by the cold of the Russian winter is one thing, I guess I can overlook a particular heroine flinging herself around outdoors in the snow wearing only a sheer silk dress because, well, they just do it so well. The deal breaker comes when the plot indulges in one flagrant flourish too many, a big outlandish tragic event that comes a good 20 minutes before the film returns to Hollywood for the requisite Big Finish, and which can't help but diminish, for me at least the BIG SCENE where Jannings gets one last chance to really go for broke.

Certainly enough of it works to make the film watchable. There's no denying the excellence of the performances, with Jannings negotiating the character's ups and more frequent downs beautifully. Nobody went to pieces the way Jannings did. More than holding his own is the great William Powell, whose hugely expressive eyes were never put to such great use in sound films. There's also the general splendor of the production itself, the beautiful black and white cinematography and really remarkable camera movement. Future viewings might make me consider whether or not von Sternberg was playing some kind of game with his audience, calling attention to the artifice of filmmaking with some of what goes on here.

If there are any future viewings, and I'll admit that I'm not in a big hurry.