Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't... See full summary »
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. It was first telecast in Seattle Wednesday 17 June 1959 on KIRO, in Minneapolis 28 August 1959 on WTCN (Channel 11), in Philadelphia 16 November 1959 on WCAU (Channel 10), and in Los Angeles 8 January 1960 on KNXT (Channel 2). It was released on DVD 6 February 2012 in tandem with Shanghai Express (1932) by Turner Classic Movies and Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and has also enjoyed an occasional airing on cable TV on TCM. See more »
This was made as a response to Greta Garbo's Mata Hari from the previous year about the exotic dancer turned WWI spy. Dietrich's film is also about a woman turned spy, it involves deceit and sexual danger, a woman acting, an intoxicating performance, all these things that Dietrich naturally breathed by simply being herself; but it also had what the other film didn't, von Sternberg directing, here in the space that would later come to characterize the best of Hitchcock.
We know that it was Sternberg who seduced the persona of the femme fatale out of Dietrich, later claiming he had discovered her. Seduced what he wanted to be seduced by, no doubt.
So it is only natural that we should expect an excellent film here, about Dietrich seducing an audience of eager men. The effort is not for realism, never was with these two. It was always about staging the circumstances that would enable us to dream this woman. It was so in Der Blaue Engel. So it makes a lot of sense that the actual films would exude the scent of movie fantasy, for example here the pure gaudiness of the ball masque with seduction behind masks, or that Dietrich would be allowed a piano in a wartime prison cell. She is playing for us of course, because she and Sternberg knew we wanted to see.
Why this isn't then up to par compared to earlier Sternberg, has a lot to do I think with the film lacking a more carefully woven self-reference; what made The Last Command such a breathtaking venture in the space between staged image and tortured heart.
There is some that I find tantalizing, namely two consecutive scenes in the end where Dietrich bares her soul from behind long eye-lashes before a military court and soon after before a firing squad. Two audiences where every member would rather hold her in his arms than do what he has to do.
The rest is too overt. The message against war is noble but trite, a forced humanism that is not among the rest of the film's agenda. And Victor McLaglen gives one of the weirdest performances I've seen, a leering that borders on perverse. It was originally intended for Gary Cooper, but it's perhaps better that we have it as it is; it adds to the feverish sexual brew.
Still, this being Sternberg's temple of worship, we get to dream about this woman. She only concedes to touch the world by playing the piano, this is proper I think. We get to fall madly in love, an instrument at her fingers, herself an instrument for music and the fates.
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