Our intrepid reviewer, the silent film savant Mark Fuller returns to the fray once more to offer his thoughts on the newly blu-ray/DVD dual-pack edition of The Last Command by Josef Sternberg. Just released to stores by the Masters of Cinema label, this new edition of a classic will be of interest to silent cinema fans old and new. Mark asks whether this is a worthy HD competitor to the handsome DVD released in the US by Criterion many moons ago, and his answer is less than straightforward.
Back in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, with White Russian refugees flooding across the world looking for a means of survival, General Lodigensky of the Imperial Russian Army found himself in America. He tried running a restaurant in New York, but ended up in California as a bit-part actor. There he met an New York customer, one Ernst Lubitsch, and told him his story. Ernst told Lajos Biro. Biro told screenwriter John Goodrich. Goodrich in turn gave his script to Josef Von Sternberg, who completely rewrote it, and so we have silent classic The Last Command.
The Last Command stands at the cusp of the two Sternbergs; the silent film stylist of lighting, shadow, use of landscape, and creation of atmosphere; and the thirties excess of Dietrich, studio artifice, incredible costumes, erotic exoticism and plots which bear no scrutiny once the film ends, but which have taken you on a thrill-ride for the duration. Here then you have a bit of both.
We first meet Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) as an 8×10 photo in a stack of “Every Russian In Hollywood”. The paper snipe on the reverse proclaims not only his name, title, and army rank (information not even of interest to his casting agent), but details instead the vital information that he is an experienced extra who works for $7.50 a day. He’s selected from the stack by a more successful Russian emigre; the director Andreyev (William Powell) and the call goes out… to the Grand Duke’s tenement, where we meet the man. Unlike his photograph, Sergius is now prematurely aged, with a visible tremor, but this studio job can’t be overlooked. As his day progresses, we see the cattle-market atmosphere of the lower rungs of the Hollywood dream factory. Note the casual bullying by middle-ranking filmmakers of those beneath them, which is to say most of the production line. Mocked even by his peers in the extra’s ranks, we feel our sympathy grow for this feeble wreck. Staring into the mirror of his make-up box, holding the medal the Czar presented to him long ago, sets up a flashback, back to 1917, Russia, revolution, how this all came to pass, and the great shock that gave him that tremor. For it seems that Andreyev has met the Grand Duke in an earlier existence; as an artistic Bolshevik with his confidante/lover Nathalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) plotting an assassination; they are “Dangerous enough, and she pretty enough, to warrant My Attention” says a title with foreboding.
But enough spoilers. As with Von Sternberg’s previous film, the proto-gangster-film masterpiece Underworld, all the lighting and compositional effects are at the service of three great actors portraying a strange, almost romantic, relationship triangle. Emil Jannings, astounding character actor that he was, gets to play both the imperious, seemingly menacing professional senior officer, and the Hollywood wreck that is his destiny, as distinctly as two different characters. Worlds apart in status and geography but separated in time by only ten years . For this, and for his previous film The Way Of All Flesh, Jannings would win the very first acting Academy Award. William Powell, with his trademark thin moustache and hooded eyes, is efficient if slightly overwhelmed here as the Bolshevik theatrical director turned Hollywood powerplayer. An eventual general in his own way, and clearly more at ease on his Hollywood home turf. The third here, as she was in Underworld, is the wonderfully stylish Evelyn Brent, by turns playful, coquettish, vampish, callous and murderous. She seems here to be the prototype of those exotic femme fatale roles that would define Dietrich five or six years later, just with darker curls and more soulful eyes. A better actress than Dietrich, if not as great a star.
This is without doubt a great film; yes, even as the film ends, with a sideswipe at the Hollywood studio artificiality Von Sternberg himself used so creatively, the old soldier gaining a redemption of sorts, and the director an insight into his erstwhile nemesis. The preposterous plot, however factually inspired, has its own logic and it does take you along for that ride. You will feel for the commander of the Imperial Army at the time of the Russian revolution no matter what your personal politics. If you have yet to see this film, you really should think about buying it. This is one of the classics, and more often than not the classics are the classics for very good reasons. But if you already have a copy of this film though, is it time to upgrade? Those with an import of the Criterion DVD for instance, should maybe think twice.
In this new Masters of Cinema transfer the film does show its age, as the print is slightly soft and there are signs of wear in the image in places. I was hoping for an upgrade of image quality but actually I was disappointed. While the image is more stable than on the Criterion DVD release, the amount of wear, and the softness of image, while itself not bad, is actually not as good as the US import DVD. The MoC extras are still noteworthy, comprising a very good interview/lecture from Tony Rayns, and a video essay on Silent Sternberg by Tag Gallagher which covers much of the same ground but is well illustrated with nicely chosen clips. There is also a 32-page fully illustrated booklet containing contemporary reviews and Von Sternberg’s own recollections of making the film. The score is by organ maestro Gaylord Carter, and if organ scores are what you like, you’ll like this, as it is a good one of its type. Myself, I would have preferred an alternative, perhaps a less strident sound palette; piano, orchestral, or somewhere in between. Again, the Criterion DVD scores higher marks from myself by offering both a Robert Israel orchestral score, as well as the Alloy Orchestra’s more modern ensemble approach; I preferred both. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
So you pays yer money; the expensive Criterion Silent Von Sternberg DVD box set (currently $80, plus import fees if you’re unlucky, includes Underworld and Docks of New York), or the good value British but not-quite there quality-wise blu-ray/DVD dual pack newly released by Masters of Cinema currently available at £12.80 on Amazon. Either ways do make your choice, as this is a film not to be missed!
A classic title indeed from the Masters of Cinema label! Those eager to check out the film can take themselves over to the Masters of Cinema shop to order their copy of The Last Command today!