Many passengers on the Shanghai Express are more concerned that the notorious Shanghai Lil is on board than the fact that a civil war is going on that may make the trip take more than three... See full summary »
Josef von Sternberg
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Robert Emmett O'Connor
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A decorated, aristocratic Czarist General is reduced to penury after the collapse of Imperial Russia. An old adversary, now a successful director hires the general to re-enact the revolution which deposed him. Written by
W. Louis <email@example.com>
EMIL JANNINGS -- World's finest dramatic actor in a brilliant successor to "The Way of all Flesh" -- and "Variety." You'll be amazed with Janning's tremendous role of the mighty general!...with men...women...a whole nation at his feet! Through flaming love...adoration...hate! To...! The most terrific climax the screen has ever known!
Rumors have circulated that this film had originally been nominated for Best Production during the Academy's first year. However, this has never been confirmed, and the Academy claims that it had never been a Best Production nominee. See more »
[Seeing an extra having a false beard applied by a make-up man]
Is that beard supposed to be Russian? It looks like an ad for cough drops!
See more »
This is one of the most richly woven tapestries I have discovered on film about film, acting about acting, fictions about fictions. The extra allure here is that it comes to us from the last minutes of the first hours of cinema, at the cusp of silent and sound filmmaking and so just as cinema - then pioneering elaborate theories about the eye animating the world, and so the eye as soul - was about to revert back to the simple machinations of theater. It would re-emerge from these notions in the time of the New Wave; this is New Wave of thirty years before.
The story is so interesting in itself, you should know a rough outline; an exiled Russian general winds up - is karmically reborn - on a Hollywood set as a movie extra to play a Russian general, reliving the past. The framing story is a flashback to his days in Russia, the old Russia about to be torn asunder by revolution, and then we have contemporary time as he struggles to relive the events for the camera.
The story within a story that emerges is connected by the most astonishing panorama of people acting roles. So we have within the flashback, which takes up most of the film; the general acting autocratic from the power of a uniform; troops acting in front of the Czar who inspects them; the revolutionary girl acting coy and in love; then while truly in love - this is a plot point you will just have to swallow - acting like a revolutionary; finally the general acting out his part in the cataclysmic turn of events.
There is more, once we reach out of the film; so we have a European actor coming to America to act in a film about the same, the only surviving film from his time in America; acting again a part he had played in The Last Laugh some years before. As in Murnau's film it is the uniform, and so the fabric of ceremonial occasion, there a hotel porter's uniform, that permits a performance that validates living. And once painfully stripped of it, there is only naked soul.
This is all very potent stuff to see, but it wouldn't be the same without the powerful ending. The general assumes his position on set as himself, and as cameras roll out their re-enactment of a forlorn trench, he becomes completely submerged in the hallucination, memory, essentially the internal narrative running in his mind of the original events. So we have a third layer here, the set as the space of memory and now the eye, the camera, looking inwards to relive.
The motion rippling across the layers is so seductive we may overlook how this ripple is a full cycle.
The one narrative is finally complete in the others, the cycle only possible with this alignment, and so this poignantly reveals both the creative and destructive aspects of art. The various threads and boundaries blurred, are now clear again through an osmosis of the soul. On one side we have the act of a powerful creation; on the other, bitter end, a broken man consumed in the fire of that act.
Sternberg knew what he was doing. Everything here dazzles with artifice, scale of descent, camera magic. The transition inside the flashback and back from it happens through a mirror, the looking glass of fictions that crystallizes illusion. This is the full cycle then; the ending somberly unmasks truth in illusion, heart in mind.
See, if you can find it, from the same year The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, about an anonymous, disposable actor caught in the wheels of the dream factory. I will follow the thread to The Blue Angel.
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