Josef von Sternberg is deservedly famous for his work with Marlene Dietrich, particularly The Blue Angel (1930), but it’s his work just prior to this – Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and Docks of New York (1928) – that really set him apart as one of the true legends of cinema.
Emil Jannings, probably best known from Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) plays Russian grand duke Sergius Alexander. Like George Bancroft in von Sternberg’s other films, Jannings is a desperate man whose downfall we slowly witness. In this case, the film starts in Hollywood where the grand duke is now another extra looking for work, flashes back to his glory days as a Russian general fighting passionately for his mother country against revolutionists, and comes back to the present where he reprises his role on-set.
von Stenberg’s film is great for the same reasons many of his others are great: there’s real emotion from the performances, particularly from Jannings, who goes from confident, zealous tower of a man, to beaten-down afterthought. But The Last Command is also an early Hollywood satire, a nice bit of self-reflexivity, and a showcase of camera and directorial virtuosity.
Here’s an early shot from the film. Jannings (that’s him in the window in the first frame) reports to set on the news that he’s been cast as a general in the latest Russian story coming out of Hollywood. He goes from window-to-window to collect his costume. Not only does von Sternberg shoot this as one long, continuous dolly shot, he also stages it as a violent bread line, where Jannings’ grand duke has to elbow his way to the front:
More cynicism abounds in later shots. Here, the director, played by William Powell, marches past a plethora of extras on his way to confronting the grand duke:
If the first shot in this post seems to echo the pre-Great Depression desperation of the US, then this shot here casts a Hollywood set in a different light. Powell is not only director, he’s a general evaluating his men. The Hollywood set is being compared to that draconian, pre-war situation. Again, von Sternberg captures this in a long dolly shot, featuring a seemingly endless (it really is impressive) line of men. Both shots make von Sternberg quite the presage.
von Sternberg also gets a lot of mileage out of still frames. Here’s one violent image that really stuck out to me. This is in the Russia flashback section, where a mob hangs an army officer:
von Sternberg stages his extras close to camera, keeps the frame relatively low to allow them to dominate the foreground, and gets a lot of motion out of the crowd.
This shot is even better. Again, the camera remains static, but the motion here is palpable. Revolutionaries line the foreground as a train crosses the middle ground, separating the foreground people from the rest of the mob in the background. As the train crosses, people board and action occurs on the locomotive:
It’s brilliant not only in the sheer amount of action going on in-shot, but also in how it feels like there is a tremendous amount of movement, yet all-told, said movement is fairly minimal. This is no DeMille, static extras, wooden movement, grandiosity.
A random side-note. I noticed that von Sternberg seems to have little regard for screen direction. Given his brilliance in all things composition and camera, you’d think that he’d be aware of action lines, but, as in the example below, he breaks some pretty basic rules. The Hollywood workers toss costumes to one-another. By the stills below you can see that the first guy throws the package frame right, but then it enters the next shot from frame right again, as though it took a right turn mid-air:
The same thing happens when this guy tosses it forward again. He throws it frame right-
-and it enters frame-right:
Is this a mistake? A lack of concern? Or could it be (I don’t really buy what I’m about to say) a deeply-rooted commentary on Hollywood – meaning: shoot this sequence in a somewhat inefficient way in the same way that Hollywood might produce it. I don’t know about that one…
Here’s the final shot of the film, the best of the film, and the one that really ties everything together. The director and his AD (Jack Raymond) stand over the grand duke. At first glance, and without context, this might be taken from a war film (not a film of a war film):
As the director covers the grand duke with a flag, von Sternberg pulls the camera back, truly revealing this to be the film set that it is:
This is remarkable in that it essentially falsifies all that has come before it. That is to say, the Russian revolution sequences are, by virtue of this bit of self-reflexivity, now shown to be capable of having been filmed. Here are realistic looking trenches…and about an hour before we had the same thing. Here they happen to be surrounded by lights and cameras…the only thing preventing the prior scenes to also be surrounded by lights and cameras is a lack of information (i.e. a lack of a similar camera move to the one just above).
So von Sternberg clearly equates the revolution with Hollywood, while at the same time, making sure to indicate the falseness of both. One can almost imagine yet another camera move in the shot above, where von Sternberg’s camera pulls back one more time, now to reveal another film crew shooting this film crew (and endlessly so on).