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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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!
Based on the life of General Lodijensky, a former general in the Russian army of Czar Nicholas, who fled Russia after the 1917 Communist revolution and wound up in Hollywood, where he worked for a while as a movie extra. See more »
1927, and Hollywood had been on the map as the centre of the cinematic world for a little over a decade. Now that it had become the site of a multi-million dollar industry and the vertically integrated studio system had been established, some of those in the calmer quarters of this film-making factory were taking the time for a little self-reflection. The Last Command, while its heart may be the classic story of a once prestigious man fallen on hard times, frames that tale within a bleak look at how cinema unceremoniously recreates reality, and how its production process could be mercilessly impersonal. It was written by Lajos Biro, who had been on the scene long enough to know.
Taking centre stage is a man who was at the time among Hollywood's most celebrated immigrants Emil Jannings. Before coming to the States Jannings had worked mainly in comedy, being a master of the hammy yet hilariously well-timed performance, often as pompous authority figures or doddering old has-beens. He makes his entrance in The Last Command as the latter, and at first it looks as if this is to be another of Jannings's scenery-chomping caricatures. However, as the story progresses the actor gets to demonstrate his range, showing by turns delicate frailty, serene dignity and eventually awesome power and presence in the finale. He never quite stops being a blustering exaggeration (the German acting tradition knowing nothing of subtlety), but he constantly holds our attention with absolute control over every facet of his performance.
The director was another immigrant, albeit one who had been around Hollywood a bit longer and had no background in the European film industry. Nevertheless Joseph von Sternberg cultivated for himself the image of the artistic and imperious Teutonic Kino Meister (the "von" was made up, by the way), and took a very distinctive approach to the craft. Of note in this picture is his handling of pace and tone, a great example being the first of the Russian flashback scenes. We open with a carefully-constructed chaos with movement in converging directions, which we the audience become part of as the camera pulls back and extras dash across the screen. Then, when Jannings arrives, everything settles down. Jannings's performance is incredibly sedate and measured, and when the players around him begin to mirror this the effect is as if his mere presence has restored order.
Sternberg appears to show a distaste for violence, allowing the grimmest moments to take place off screen, and yet implying that they have happened with a flow of images that is almost poetic. In fact, he really seems to have an all-round lack of interest in action. In the scene of the prisoners' revolt Sternberg takes an aloof and objective stance, his camera eventually retreating to a fly-on-the-wall position. Compare this to the following scenes between Jannings and Evelyn Brent, which are a complex medley of point-of-view shots and intense close-ups, thrusting us right into the midst of their interaction.
As a personality on set, it would seem that Sternberg was much like the cold and callous director played on the screen by William Powell, and in fact Powell's portrayal is probably something of a deliberate parody that even Sternberg himself would have been in on. Unfortunately this harsh attitude did not make him an easy man to work with, and coupled with his focus on his technical resources over his human ones, the smaller performances in his pictures leave a little to be desired. While Jannings displays classic hamming in the Charles Laughton mode that works dramatically, it appears no-one told his co-stars they were not in a comedy. Evelyn Brent is fairly good, giving us some good emoting, but overplaying it here and there. The only performance that comes close to Jannings is that of Powell himself. It's a little odd to see the normally amiable star of The Thin Man and The Great Ziegfeld playing a figure so stern and humourless, like a male Ninotchka, but he does a good job, revealing a smouldering emotional intensity beneath the hard-hearted exterior.
The Last Command could easily have ruffled a few feathers in studio offices, as tends to happen with any disparaging commentary on the film-making process, even a relatively tame example like this. At the very least, I believe many studio heads would have been displeased by the "behind-the-scenes" view, as it threatened the mystique of movie-making which was still very much alive at this point. As it turned out, such was the impact of the picture that Jannings won the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as a Best Writing nomination for Lajos Biro and (according to some sources, although the issue is a little vague) a nomination for Best Picture. This is significant, since the Academy was a tiny institution at this time and the first awards were more than ever a bit of self-indulgent back-slapping by the Hollywood elite. But elite or not, they recognised good material when they saw it, and were willing to reward it.
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