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An extra is called upon to play a general in a movie about the Russian Revolution. However, he is not any ordinary extra. He is Serguis Alexander, former commanding general of the Russia armies who is now being forced to relive the same scene, which he suffered professional and personal tragedy in, to satisfy the director who was once a revolutionist in Russia and was humiliated by Alexander. It can now be the time for this broken man to finally "win" his penultimate battle. This is one powerful movie with meticulous direction by Von Sternberg, providing the greatest irony in Alexander's character in every way he can. Jannings deserved his Oscar for the role with a very moving performance playing the general at his peak and at his deepest valley. Powell lends a sinister support as the revenge minded director and Brent is perfect in her role with her face and movements showing so much expression as Jannings' love. All around brilliance. Rating, 10.
The Last Command, was inspired by a true story
sort of. Legendary
director Ernst Lubitsch was invited by a friend to dinner at a Russian
restaurant where he was introduced to the owner, one General
Lodijenski. This General had fought in World War I, but lost an
important battle and fled west shortly afterwards opening a restaurant
called The Double Eagle on Sunset Boulevard.
Several months later, Lubitsch was at MGM working on The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg when he noticed an extra in costume of a Russian General. "I know you from somewhere," said Lubitsch. "I met you before," the extra replied. "I am General Lodijenski." Turns out his restaurant had closed and he was forced to now take extra work in the movies. "Funny, isn't it," he said, "that I should be playing a walk-on bit as a Russian general."
Mulling the encounter over, Lubitsch began to see it as a perfect scenario for Emil Jannings, whose gift for portraying tragic, masochistic characters had long since been established. Lubitsch told the story to Jannings, who expressed interest. A few weeks later, Lubitsch ran into writer Lajos Biro, who mentioned that Jannings was not only a brilliant actor but had good story ideas as well. Biro then proceeded to tell Lubitsch about the script he was working on, at that point entitled The General. It was the same story Lubitsch had told Jannings.
The script was written and given to Josef von Sternberg to direct. Sternberg made some brilliant changes to frame the main story as a flashback, giving the narrative a quality of retrospection, with the implications of loss from the beginning. It was re-titled, The Last Command and what happened to General Lodijenski? He was given a small part in the film and I am told he can be observed as a thick-set, middle-aged man with short hair.
Now we have the seeds of the story, a Russian General once a cousin to the Czar ends up a mere extra in a movie about a Russian General irony. But there is much more irony, the symbolism of the peasants being mistreated by those above them is the same as the extras being mistreated by the Hollywood elite.
The films star, Emil Jannings was a Swiss born actor known for portraying imposing historical figures like Henry 8th, Othello, Louis the 15th and Nero. In the mid-1920's many considered him the world's greatest screen actor. He was often cast in films designed to showcase his gift for tragedy as in F.W. Murnau's 1924 feature THE LAST LAUGH where Jannings played a proud but aged hotel doorman who is demoted to restroom attendant. Or the silent version of FAUST made in 1926 where he played Mephistopheles. The Last Command was his 57th film silent and later his first talkie, THE BLUE ANGEL also directed by Josef von Sternberg was a huge international hit and made a star out of Marlene Dietrich.
When I recently re-watched this film I was amazed to see this old, feeble and broken man shaking beneath the weight of his memories juxtaposed against him as he was young, virile handsome commanding an entire army as well as every room he entered.
Notice the tenderness the director pulls out of this gentleman when he explains why he shakes, because he had a great shock once and then we look with him into a mirror that leads us back to the story of a once great man.
In the flashback we see William Powell and Evelyn Brent as revolutionary spies pretending to be actors. Evelyn Brent was a dark haired beauty with sultry looks that led to her being typecast exotic, dangerous roles as a sex addict who did drugs everyday. Her break thru role was as an alcoholic in the play THE RUINED LADY. Just before tonight's film she had made UNDERWORLD in 1927 with the same director Josef von Sternberg, it is considered the first major gangster film. On a trivia note her husband's name was Harry Fox for whom the foxtrot dance was named for.
William Powell was one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood for over four decades but I bet you didn't know he started in silent films mostly playing heavies and bad guys! In his first film he was a criminal to John Barrymore's SHERLOCK HOLMES in 1922! LAST COMMAND was his 27th silent film and before this he was never a top star but on the strength of his reviews from this feature he was soon cast as the lead role in a talkie called THE CARNARY MURDER CASE where he played Philo Vance, a detective. He was so good in it he never played a bad guy again. Unlike many silent actors, sound boosted Powell's career. He had a fine, sophisticated voice and his stage training and comic timing greatly aided his introduction to sound pictures. He's best remembered today for his work with the charming Myrna Loy in six THIN MAN pictures.
The very first Academy Award ever presented was given to Emil Jannings (he received his award early due to the fact that he was going home to Europe before the ceremony) for his performances Best Actor in a Leading Role for: The Last Command (1928) and for The Way of All Flesh (1927). That first year they gave it for the whole years work and not just a single performance. Sadly THE WAY OF ALL FLESH is a lost film so we have nothing to compare it with.
Sternberg is best remembered today for his amazing lighting and cinematography of Dietrich but I saw watch the actors eyes in this film and you'll see he was also a director of great performances in amazing stories I do you seek out and enjoy THE LAST COMMAND!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
On a movie set in 1927 there is a call for an extra to play a Russian
general in a war scene. The director (William Powell) calls in an old
man (Emil Jannings) who receives the call at his boarding house. The
old and confused man arrived at the studio amid a crowd of extras. As
he pins a medal on his costume, he tells the story of how the Czar had
given it to him and we flash back to 1917.
Jannings in a general in the Russian army and a cousin to the czar, He recalls dealing with two revolutionaries: a theatre director (Powell) and a beautiful actress (Evelyn Brent). While Powell is sent off to prison (from which he escapes) he takes Brent along with him as a consort. She eventually learns that his love for Russia is true and deep and she falls for him.
But while on a train to Petrograd, revolutionaries overtake the train and kill most of the military men. As they beat and harangue the general, Brent jumps to the front and demands that they take him to Petrograd to hang him in public. Brandishing her revolutionary flag in the wintry wind while she screams to the crowds, Brent is remarkable.
As the train proceeds with its prized prisoner, Brent helps Jannings jump off the train to safety as she explains this was the only way she could save him. From a snowbank, the general watches as the train speeds away across a bridge over an icy river.
Back in Hollywood, the old man is stirred by his memories of old Russia and as the movie scene is set he blinks and stares at the familiar images of war. As the director yells for lights, camera the old man, who has now totally lost his hold on reality, engages in a ferocious scene of war action, raising the flag of old Russia in one last burst of glory, his last command.
Emil Jannings is just superb in this film and won the first Best Actor Oscar for it; the finale is an emotional tour de force. Evelyn Brent is also excellent and gives perhaps her finest performance. This was an important film role for William Powell as well.
This is a beautifully done film and is not to be missed.
Josef Von Sternberg directs this magnificent silent film about silent Hollywood and the former Imperial General to the Czar of Russia who has found himself there. Emil Jannings won a well-deserved Oscar, in part, for his role as the general who ironically is cast in a bit part in a silent picture as a Russian general. The movie flashes back to his days in Russia leading up to the country's fall to revolutionaries. William Powell makes his big screen debut as the Hollywood director who casts Jannings in his film. The film serves as an interesting look at the fall of Russia and at an imitation of behind-the-scenes Tinseltown in the early days. Von Sternberg delivers yet another classic, and one that is filled with the great elements of romance, intrigue, and tragedy.
I had little experience of silent films except few and far between until I saw The Last Command. With the great Josef von Sternberg directing and Oscar winning performance by Emil Jannings, I knew I could expect something memorable and I was richly rewarded in experience when I viewed it. Now I have no qualms about silent films and have become something of a fan of them. Three other silent films of equal caliber came to my mind when I watched this film; The Passion of Joan of Arc,Nanook of the North and Battleship Potemkin I noted that to bring the full effect of a movie's message and produce entertainment as well, it is a much harder task for the performers than with sound and dialog. In this film, Jannings outdid himself and absolutely deserved the Oscar, the first for a foreign actor in Oscar history. His haughty bearing as the imperial Russian general and appropriate facial expressions were totally convincing and he appeared taller and grander than himself in real life. Then again, as the devastated,humiliated extra in the Hollywood Bread line he was just as superb. he was able to project that false dignity even as he was dressed up in the uniform of his former rank in the Russian army for the part he was asked to play. The last few minutes of this movie brought to memory his depiction of Emmanuel Rath in the other great movie he made with Marlene Dietrich, Blue Angel, but in Last Command he was even more admirable. One gets deeply into the atmosphere of the scenes, the story and the music when one watches this film. For that, the credit goes to Sternberg as much or more than to the principal actors. The music score was also so very beautiful and made for a great total effect.Performances by Evelyn Brent and William Powell were also superb. Brent did a great job both as the delicate beauty as well as the vicious turn coat in her role.
When this movie began, and Emil Jannings first appeared, I thought "Oh no! not another stagey old ham playing to the back row of the gallery." However, as the scene changed to Czarist Russia, so did Jannings performance. Instead of the twitchy old refugee living in a boarding house, we saw a upright, aristocratic soldier in control. From then on, the performance was impecable. Who could not feel sympathy for the General as he was betrayed by his country and his love and everything he stood for. Who also could not feel sympathy for the desparate revolutionaries trying to overthrow a decadent monarchy. The theatrical director who became a film director was also sympathetic as an artist caught up (like most participants of WWI) in a war that was not of his doing and that he really couldn't care less about. This film, made only 10 years after the revolution, said a lot about the plight of war refugees everywhere.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Last Command was one of the best movies I've ever seen. Chronicling the rise and fall of a Russian dictator with so much power, emotion, and humanity that it is very easy to forget this is a silent picture. Emil Jannings as General Dolgurucki shows such mad obsession for power over everyone and everything, only to be betrayed by his entire country and left a sad withering shell of the man he once was. The scene where Jannings gives his "last command" was amazing in his portrayal of the sad old man reliving his glory days. The flaring of his eyes, the strength of his stature, the passion of his words are a fitting end to a great man's life. It make sense that the general would die on a movie set since it was the only plausible place left that he could die an honorable death on the battle field. Perhaps The Last Command is a portrait of the first method actor, but that would sell it short because it is about so much more than that. Every character seems to have a few tricks up their respective sleeves, or skirts. One of the running themes is that people are capable of anything, and it shows to a great extent. The general goes through such a physical change from stately dictator to grubby extra that it is hard to believe that each end of the spectrum ever had anything to do with the other.
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
The story is so interesting in itself, you should know a rough outline; it is about an exiled Russian general who winds up in a Hollywood set as a movie extra playing a Russian general. The framing story is a flashback to his days in Russia, the old Russia about to be torn aside by revolution, and then we have contemporary time as he struggles to re-enact 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 ceremonial attire, 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 the mind, of the original events. So we have a third layer here, the set as the mind and now the eye, the camera, looking inwards!
It is not just the staged replication of reality, itself a staged replication we have seen just before from our position as viewers, but the fact that this staged replication and fiery performance is only possible because of the memory of the first. 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.
Last Command, The (1928)
**** (out of 4)
Marvelous drama about a former Russian General (Emil Jannings) who after the war fled the country and ended up in America where ten years later he's working as an extra in Hollywood. A director (William Powell) is making a movie about that Russian war when he comes across a picture of the former General and recognizes him as the man who threw him in prison years earlier. This here certainly turned out to be something truly special and a lot of the credit has to go to director von Sternberg but we also have Jannings turning in a magnificent performance, which ended up winning him an Oscar. The story also won a Oscar and it's easy to see why because the screenplay pretty much contains ever bit of emotion you could possibly want. There's some nice laughs, a pretty good love story, some political drama and some incredibly tense scenes. What shocked me so much is that it seems like von Sternberg wanted the first twenty-minutes or so to gain sympathy for our main character as we see him obviously destroyed by life and working for peanuts as an extra. When then get the grand flashback to when he was pretty much the ruler of Russia and how his encounter with a woman (Evelyn Brent) pretty much changes the rest of his life. The story is part tragedy but it also works incredibly well as a character study because one can't help but love this guy and feel sorry for the pain he goes through. The "Rosebud" from CITIZEN KANE is perhaps the greatest secret in film history but I think Jannings' nervous head shake has to be the second one. Early on we're told that this head shake is due to some accident and when it's finally revealed what that accident was it comes as a great shock and is an incredibly powerful sequence. The final thirty-minutes of the movie is like an out of control train, which is funny because the majority of the footage takes place on-board a train. As the revolution begins the film starts to pick up energy and drama and it just keeps growing and growing as the thing moves along. It's clear von Sternberg planned it this way because he just keeps pounding the viewer with one twist after another and the suspense just keeps building until that final secret is revealed. The aftermath as the story picks back up in Hollywood is yet another powerful turn and will certainly leave an impact on the viewers. Jannings is marvelous in the main role as he really is playing two characters and he does a terrific job with both of them. I was very moved by his performance as the broken down extra because he tells us everything we need to know the first time we see his face. The eyes can be a very powerful thing for an actor and Jannings tells us so much with the look on his face. The power and emotion in his eyes isn't something they can teach at an acting school and the veteran certainly knows how to use his. Powell's role isn't nearly as flashy but he too is quite good. Brent is even more impressive here than she was in the director's previous film UNDERWORLD. Her character goes through a lot of changes as well and I thought the actress nailed each one of the emotions and manages to have us want to see her dead one second only to then change our opinions on her a split second later. THE LAST COMMAND is certainly one of the most powerful movies from this era with a final thirty-minutes that rank among the best I've ever seen.
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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