Josef von Sternberg pairs with Emil Jannings to make a story of fiction overtaking reality. Also, the Russian Revolution. This film was one of the titles that won Jannings the very first Academy Award for best actor.
The nineteenth nervous breakdown.
Before we get started, I think it is only fair to warn you that I am not a fan of Josef von Sternberg’s work in general. Like the output of Maurice Tourneur, I find most of his films to be gorgeous bores, done in by too much staring and a pace that makes snails and sloths look dangerously speedy. Of course, there are exceptions. I love Tourneur’s The Wishing Ring and von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, for example, but their usual output is an ideal cure for insomnia.
The other confession is that I think Emil Jannings is a powerful performer but something of a one trick pony. He can play big and he can play bold but he is the nuclear option as far as leading men go. I like big and bold as much as the next classic movie fan but one does tire of an actor who is constantly cranked to eleven. I’m not saying that I dislike his work or that I do not respect his talents, I am simply saying that he is a performer I have to be in the mood for.
With these two prejudices in mind, let’s dive into The Last Command, released at the height of Hollywood’s infatuation with the troubles in Russia.
Hollywood director Leo Andreyev (William Powell) is trying to cast a general for his upcoming Russian Revolution picture. No one seems to fit the part until he spies the headshot of one Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), who claims to have been a general and cousin to the czar. Andreyev decides to hire him but it is clear that the two men have a past.
The general is in a shabby state, possibly suffering the aftereffects of a stroke, but he reports for work. After he dons his general’s uniform, he adds an embellishment of his own, a genuine medal given to him by the czar himself. Flashback!
It’s the height of the revolution and we see the general in his prime. He is bravely and competently fighting for his czar but not everyone is pleased to see his success. Natalie (Evelyn Brent, looking like she is chewing on a lemon) and Leo Andreyev (William Powell adopts some wild Trotsky-ish hair for these scenes) are revolutionaries posing as entertainers.
And this is where the flaws of the film become evident. Natalie and Andreyev are detained by the general. Our future director is sent to a cell but Natalie interests the general. Three guesses as to what happens next:
a) She gets let off on a legal technicality
b) She turns her comrades in to save herself
c) She is totally going to kill the general but then she realizes she loves him because reasons
The answer is C because of course it is. I never get why these fellas are cool with murder attempts as long as they don’t succeed.
Them: Well, she didn’t actually kill me.
Me: But she tried.
Them: But she didn’t.
Me: But she tried!
Natalie’s reason for falling for the general? She realizes that he loves Russia! But he’s still propping up the incompetent rule (and it is portrayed as incompetent) of Czar Nicholas II, which is a pretty wretched thing to do. Some revolutionary she turned out to be. (In spite of having a romantic story and cute kids, the czar was a horrible person who has been thoroughly romanticized. I’m sure a lot of the people he killed had cute kids too. Just because the USSR proved to be less than a picnic, let’s not forget that Russia under the czar was a scary place.)
Anyway, things go all Potemkin (but on a smaller budget and with slower cuts) and Natalie seems to betray the general. But it’s all a ruse to save him. Meanwhile, William Powell escapes and isn’t seen again until he has his hair in some semblance of order.
Pretty much no cliché of the Russian Revolution is ignored. I should have predicted the film’s outcome to a paying audience, I could have made a fortune. I would have called myself the Prognosticator of Paramount.
I tried to like this film, I really really did. There were moments of stunning beauty, to be sure, but these were bright spots in a film that is, overall, a hackneyed affair. I’m the first one to admit that the fault may be mine. I love movies about the Russian Revolution—provided they were made in Russia.
There is not a single thing that The Last Command does that I have not seen done better in a different film. A romance between a Red and a White? The Forty-First (either version) leaves it in the dust. A touching and balanced look at the human cost of the revolution? Two Comrades Were Serving is superior by far. A mad auteur’s kaleidoscope vision of that tumultuous time? At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger Among His Own is a lot more fun. (Also, a real train instead of an incredibly cheesy model.) And whatever the heck White Sun of the Desert is, it does it better. (Fun fact: Russian crews traditionally watch that last film for good luck before every manned space mission.)
But isn’t it unfair to compare Russian pictures to what Hollywood was making? After all, it was only a decade after the revolution and circumstances were still murky. Fair enough. The thing is, I prefer other Hollywood films about the revolution as well. The giddy kitsch and genuine pathos of Tempest is a potent combination and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Volga Boatman is corn right off the cob but it is also a ton of fun and is actually one of the few American films to grasp the sheer scope of Russia. Because, you know, DeMille. (Seriously, just about every Hollywood film set in Russia would have you believe it was some dinky country with one town and a population of seventeen.)
A few reviews I have come across seem to take the film’s pro-czarist (though not pro-czar) stance as a given. I should point out that Hollywood films did not always take one side or the other in the Red vs. White affair. Lecherous Russian aristocrats were the go-to villains in the ballerina sub-genre (yes, it was a thing) and revolutionaries were presented as heroic freedom fighters on more than one occasion. DeMille had scored a blockbuster hit by making William Boyd a sexy Bolshevik (complete with open shirt, yowza!) in The Volga Boatman. Viola Dana had been cast as an Electra (wielding the titular weapon) out to kill the aristocrat who ruined her life in The Cossack Whip. In short, Hollywood had not yet made up its mind about the USSR and this is useful remember as we look back at these films through the lens of the Red Scare and the Cold War.
Russian aristocrats who fled the victorious Bolsheviks often escaped with just their lives. Russian talent did indeed flood Hollywood and it seemed obvious to make a film about the poetic tragedy that this change of circumstances brought on.
The origins of the film’s screenplay are murky. Both Jannings and von Sternberg claim credit for the original story, though the film itself lists Lajos Biro as the author. Last I heard, Jannings was in the lead with a ten-page outline that supports his claims, though von Sternberg did apparently heavily modify the script.
Josef von Sternberg stated that Paramount begged him to give story credit to Lajos Biro because the latter had been on the payroll and had not delivered a usable outline yet. Biro, you will recall, wrote Hotel Imperial, which manages to make the formerly hated Hun into the hero of the picture with a Hungarian chambermaid preferring a dashing Austrian officer over an imperious Russian general. In fact, there are quite a few similarities in content and structure between Hotel Imperial and The Last Command. It is possible that Paramount gave story credit to Biro to protect themselves from a plagiarism complaint. (Biro had written the original play upon which Hotel Imperial was based while he was still living in Hungary, well before he was under contract with Paramount.) Buying up the rights to similar (though unconnected) stories or offering credit to interested parties remains common insurance against lawsuits in the film industry.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why everyone is fighting over credit. The story is riddled with clichés and there is nothing really unique or innovative about it. Basically, it seems that everyone involved fell in love with the finale but could think of nothing to match it. So we have an ending in search of a story.
Worse, the characters have almost no inner life. What I mean is that they don’t seem to exist until they are pulled out of their boxes to perform their scenes. The best stories make viewers believe in the characters between the good parts. Can you imagine what Natalie does between her scenes? I can’t. She basically spends her time looking alternately surly and sexy but glowering does not a fleshed-out character make. Jannings manages to create something a bit deeper but it is in spite of the script, not because of it. The most idiotic plot device employed was the (spoiler for the rest of this paragraph) way the filmmakers chose to eliminate Natalie. I laughed out loud. Quite literally the second her narrative purpose is completed, she is killed in a convenient train wreck. Speaking of train wrecks, let’s talk about the film’s biggest flaw.
The Last Command makes the fatal error of following the wrong character. Emil Jannings gives a good performance as the general but he is not the most interesting person in the story. I wanted to see more of William Powell’s Leo Andreyev. How did he get out of Russia? How did he get to Hollywood? How did he work his way up the ranks? This is the movie I wanted to see! Alas, like Natalie, Leo only exists in relation to Emil Janning’s character and his rather jejune revenge plot is merely a device so that someone who knew who the general was would see his last command. Oh well. I suppose we can assume that Leo continued to make Russian pictures in Hollywood until his inevitable blacklisting in the 1940s.
This reminds me of Doctor Zhivago. We are constantly having Omar Sharif and Julie Christie shoved in our faces when the most interesting character by far is Geraldine Chaplin. (She’s given an off-hand “oh, she went to France” as a send-off. I wanted to go with her!) Actually, both films would be a fab acclaimed-films-set-in-Russia-that-I-feel-are-overrated double feature.
There are many tales of conflict between Jannings and von Sternberg while working on The Last Command and The Blue Angel. Frankly, I can’t imagine two people who deserved each other more. I figure that as long as they were driving one another up the wall, they were leaving nicer people alone. I just feel sorry for poor William Powell.
For all these flaws, I have to say that Jannings very nearly saves it. His performance is powerful, bombastic but he also draws the pain and anger that his character experiences back into his own body. When he confronts the Bolsheviks head-on, he seems about to defeat them through sheer force of will but a few betrayals deflate his pride and reduce him to a shell-shocked husk.
Jannings’ final scene is beautiful, acted to perfection. It’s easy to see why he won that Oscar. The Academy, then as now, could not resist complete abandonment of vanity in the service of a mental breakdown. You may also note that the film was not up for best picture. Hey, the Academy got something right! Alert the media! (The Oscars are a bizarre popularity contest voted on by people who may or may not have made a film in decades and who may or may not have seen the films in question. They deserve zero respect but they get it anyway so there’s no avoiding the topic.) But it was up for best screenplay (boo!) so I guess I can take back my compliment.
In general, the film works when it stays in Hollywood. I liked the sly meta humor at the expense of the industry. For example, the general tries to fix the placement of medals on his uniform only to be told that he does not understand Russia by the assistant director. Moviesplaining culture and customs to people born into that culture while simultaneously insulting them? A longstanding Hollywood tradition that continues to this day.
Josef von Sternberg would return to Russia with Marlene Dietrich, creating a considerably more stylized imperial court in The Scarlet Empress. Catherine the Great is so colorful that no screenwriter would dare invent her and the eccentricity of the subject seems to have inspired von Sternberg to do what he did best but without the boring bits. Second time’s the charm.
If you value performance or style over story (and that is a legitimate point, especially with a von Sternberg film), it’s quite likely that you will enjoy The Last Command. I just couldn’t forgive its flaws.
The Last Command has a great opening, a great finale and some powerful acting from Jannings. Unfortunately, it also has a middle section that is trite, boring and derivative. The plot drives the characters rather than the other way round and no one but Jannings displays any particular depth or inner logic. The film is a mixed bag, worth seeing for fans of von Sternberg but it’s not going to win over any new converts.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★
Where can I see it?
The Last Command was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection as part of their box set of von Sternberg’s silent films. It includes two scores: a more traditional arrangement from Robert Israel and a modern score by the Alloy Orchestra. Both are very good, though I ended up preferring Israel’s music. The set is now out of print and used copies are going for an arm and a leg.