Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Joseph van Sternberg | The Last Command

after caviar
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph von Sternberg (story, based on a story by Lajos Biró), John F. Goodrich (screenplay), Herman J. Maniewicz (titles), Joseph von Sternberg (director) The Last Command / 1928

Von Sternberg’s masterful silent film of 1928, The Last Command, began as a true story told by Ernst Lubitsch about a general in the Imperial Russian Army, Theodore A. Lodigensky, now working in a Russian restaurant, who ended life as working as film extra—playing film generals—for $7.50 a day. Lubitsch told the anecdote to Lajos Biró, who passed it on to Von Sternberg.

      Von Sternberg, in turn, transformed the tale into both an exciting adventure about the last days of the Russian Empire and a devastatingly dark satire of Hollywood, beginning with a Hollywood director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), in attempting to cast a movie about Russia, suddenly recognizing the former Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) in a batch of photographs of possible extras. Back in Russia, Andreyev had been a Communist supporter hiding out with a girlfriend, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) before they were taken into custody by the Grand Duke, who later lashed out at Andreyev with a whip lash across his face. The Grand Duke, in turn, takes Natalie back to his headquarters, with a intent to seduce her. In fact, when she discerns, despite the cruel actions of the Grand Duke’s cousin, the Czar, that the Grand Duke is loyal, attempting to save a war-torn Russia, she does fall in love with him. On a railroad trip to the front, however, the train is overtaken by revolutionaries, and, to save him, Natalie quickly rejoins the Communists, suggesting they force the elderly general to stoke the train all the way to Petrograd, where he will be hung. Mid-trip, she helps free the Duke, handing over the pearls he has given her, so that he can buy his way out of the country. He jumps from the train, only to watch the railroad cars fall from a nearby bridge, killing everyone.

      For Andreyev, accordingly, it is not only that the Grand Duke “looks” the part in for he will cast him, but is a sort of final revenge for the treatment he had once received.


     Von Sternberg later claimed that Emil Jannings, who won the first acting Oscar for, in part, this role, kept mixing up the behavior of general before and after his fall from power, sometimes playing the powerful Grand Duke too much like the head-twitching old man of the later half. But for me, it is just this slight confusion that lends Jannings’ performance so much credence. Even as the towering general, head of the Russian forces, he is also a kind of fool, a man that dares to believe he can lure the beautiful Natalie into his bed. As his own men perceive, he does not even know the proper procedure, awarding her the gift of pearls before the champagne and caviar, when most seducers would have waited until after. It is just this slight confusion, which Jannings would repeat with the beautiful Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel two years later, that makes the character so appealing, despite the fierceness and intensity of his commitment to his cause, as he becomes a kind of “holy fool,” a man of such deep resolve that he becomes admirable despite being on the wrong side of history.

     The director, meanwhile, tells his tale, both within the ivory-white halls of the military headquarters, a glamorous space where dashing Russian soldiers toast her beauty, and in the later train scenes, which von Sternberg uses somewhat like a stage set, careening his busy camera in and out of the open train windows as the revolutionary masses reveal their true bestial selves, getting drunk and nearly raping Nathalie.

      The man we encounter in the last scenes of the film is in such a sorry state that he can only keep shaking his head as he is led through the mass “breadline-’like” call of thousands of extras more like a soon-to-be-slaughtered cow a human being. Mocked by the others, particularly for claiming a white cross around his neck was gift from the Czar, the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander is forced to apologize for his own psychological condition: “I have had a great shock.”

      Obviously the “great shock” might be seen to be his fall from position, the sudden reversal of history and of his own fate. One might imagine that is what von Sternberg was thinking. But I would suggest that the shock was more likely the discovery, despite his often bumbling bluff of living, that Natalie, the Communist activist, actually did love him, followed immediately by her sudden death that represents the “great shock” of which he speaks, that his often martinet-like support of Mother Russia was seen by this woman as something else, an idea which reverberates with Andreyev’s and his assistant’s evaluation upon the old general’s death on the set:

                                   The Assistant: That guy was a great actor.
                                   Leo Andreyev: He was more than a great actor—
                                         he was a great man.

       In the short scene in which the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander performs, dressed as he had during the real-life scenes, the old man is challenged by an underling soldier: “You’ve given your last command.” Furious with the challenge, he takes up the whip on cue—just as he had in the earlier scene with the young Andreyev—to punish him. But in this scene, confused by the movie cameras, and suddenly mistaking the present for the past, he rises to his full height, as if, for a moment, he might take on and destroy the entire Hollywood scene—camera, cameraman, crew, and director all, before collapsing, a scene of cinema-inspired madness that will not be repeated until years later, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

Los Angeles, August 6, 2013

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