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The Last Command
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: John F. Goodrich (titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz; story by Lajos Biró)
Stars: Emil Jannings (General Dolgorucki / Grand Duke Sergius Alexander), Evelyn Brent (Natalie Dabrova), William Powell (Lev Andreyev), Jack Raymond (Assistant director), Nicholas Soussanin (The adjutant), Michael Visaroff (Serge), Fritz Feld (A revolutionist)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1928
Country: U.S.
The Last Command Criterion Collection DVD
The Last Command The Last Command is one of Josef von Sternberg’s most conceptually daring films, a complex multi-layered narrative that mixes past and present, reality and fantasy, objectivity and subjectivity while also offering up an incisive portrait of the inner workings of a Hollywood studio. The studio was, of course, von Sternberg’s favored mode of production, as it allowed him to be in direct command of all elements while creating his unique artistic visions, and the themes of power and control that are woven throughout The Last Command feel like meta-commentary on the exacting director’s notoriously demanding persona.

The great German actor Emil Jannings, who had previously done his best work with F. W. Murnau (including 1924’s The Last Laugh and 1926’s Faust), won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, a Russian general who escaped to the United States after the 1917 Russian Revolution and is now a lowly movie extra waiting in his boarding house for a call from the studio (sadly, the other six films in which Jannings starred during his two-and-a-half year stint in Hollywood have been lost). Sergius is called in to--irony of ironies--play a Russian general in a big studio movie about the Russian Revolution. Once Sergius arrives at the set and is given his costume, the movie flashes back to 1917 where we see him at the height of his power. We learn that the film-within-a-film’s director (William Powell) is also a Russian émigré, a former revolutionary whom Sergius captured and beat and whose girlfriend (Evelyn Brent) eventually seduced and then betrayed Sergius, leading to his downfall. Thus, the lines of narrative between the actual revolution and its Hollywood recreation a decade later on a sound stage are multiply intersected: Not only is Sergius playing a version of his own former self, but he is now at the whim of a man over whom he once lorded power.

The Last Command, which was written by John F. Goodrich with titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who would go on to write Citizen Kane (1941), was the second film that von Sternberg directed for Paramount, after Underworld (1927), which married his avant-garde sensibilities with the crackling rhythms of a gangster thriller. Throughout the film von Sternberg draws our focus to how elements of the multiple narratives reflect and refract each other, whether it be the symbolically loaded activity of smoking and, more importantly, having one’s cigarette lit by someone else, or the power role-reversal of Sergius and the director, who ultimately gives the fallen general his true last stand by allowing him to come alive beneath the studio lights. In this sense, The Last Command is more of an interesting visual and narrative experiment, rather than a truly emotional experience. Jannings is a forceful screen presence and his characterization of the general is impressive in its oscillation between power and loss, but it isn’t quite enough to draw the film beyond its conceptual intrigue.

The Last Command Criterion Collection DVD
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg Criterion Collection boxsetThe Last Command is available exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” box set, which also includes Underworld (1927) and The Docks of New York (1928).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video essay by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom
  • Video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher
  • Swedish television interview from 1968 with director Josef von Sternberg
  • 96-page booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95
    Release DateAugust 24, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    All three films in the “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” Criterion Collection DVD box set have been given new high-definition transfers and been subjected to extensive digital restoration, resulting in images that are among the best I have seen of films of this vintage. Underworld was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain positive print, The Last Command was transferred from a 35mm duplicate negative, and The Docks of New York was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. Of the three films, I would say that Docks looks consistently the best, with incredible contrast and black levels; there are occasional sequences that show significant scratching, usually around reel transfers, but most of the film is remarkably clean and stable. The same goes for Underworld, which also shows some signs of damage in the form of scratches and vertical hairlines, but very little given the film’s age. The Last Command probably looks the worst, although the term “worst” is entirely relative here, as it still looks better than most silent films on DVD. The image is slightly softer and more grayish, and there appears to be more damage that couldn’t be digitally corrected. Suffice it to say, though, that all three films look amazing for their age, and Criterion has done a magnificent job preserving them. Each of the films also comes with a choice of two different Dolby Digital two-channel stereo soundtracks. All three have new orchestral scores written exclusively for this release by Robert Israel. Underworld and The Last Command also feature slightly less conventional orchestral scores by Alloy Orchestra (which premiered in 2007 and 2008 at the New York and Telluride Film Festivals, respectively), and The Docks of New York includes a piano- and vocal-based scored by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. All six scores sound clean and robust and add greatly to the pleasure of the viewing experience, regardless of which one you choose.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Underworld and The Last Command are each accompanied by a detailed, informative visual essay, each of which runs about 35 minutes. In “Underworld: How It Came to Be,” UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom spends 36 minutes studying the fine details of Underworld, as well as discussing its relationship to von Sternberg’s earlier films, including The Salvation Hunters, from which many clips are included. On The Last Command disc, Tag Gallagher contributes an essay titled “Sternberg Until ’29,” which focuses primarily on the director’s biography and early works, with about five minutes devoted to a detailed exploration of each of the three films included in this box set. On The Docks of New York disc we have a 1968 interview with von Sternberg (40 min.) from Swedish television in which he discusses the entirety of his career, with quite a bit of attention paid to his silent films. The box set also includes a beautifully designed 96-page booklet with essays by critics Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by their composers; Ben Hecht’s original story treatment for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry about actor Emil Jannings.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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