Josef Von Sternberg’s The Last Command is a rousing melodrama that deserves its place in every film fan’s collection. As well as being an important piece of film history – Emil Jannings won the first ever Best Actor Oscar in 1929 for his incredible performances in both this and The Way of All Flesh – the story remains as compelling as ever, with its unforgettable visuals and stirring score finally receiving the treatment they deserve on this lavish Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release.
Set in the present day at the time of the film’s release in 1928, The Last command introduces us to an exiled Russian general who is forced to take a job as an extra in a Hollywood production. When his acting role starts to mirror facets of his former life he begins to recall the troubling events that shaped his persona during the war, which gradually distorts his grip on reality. Flashing back to the traumatic moments of the General’s life we witness the heartbreak and pain that he both inflicted and suffered in these troubled times through a number of powerful, emotionally-charged sequences.
The scope of the story is reminiscent of epics such as Dr. Zhivago and Gone With The Wind, with a troubled romance playing out against the backdrop of a War – in this case the darkest days of World War 1 – and an insight into the detrimental effects these harsh times have on those involved. That Sternberg manages to cram in just as much emotion and heart into his picture (in less than half the length of the aforementioned classics) is a testament to his ability as a storyteller; no single frame is wasted, and each and every one is completely captivating – particularly those involving large numbers of extras.
There is something discomforting about scenes involving large crowds in silent films. In The Last Command, the onset of a disorganised rabble is nothing short of horrifying as the group mentality sets hold and you genuinely begin to fear for the lives of those at their mercy. The baying crowds desperate to join the ranks of actors in an earlier scene echoes this suffocation of large crowds during the war time sequences and becomes one of a number of triggers for the General’s memories of the war.
Emil Jennings puts forth a bravura performance as General Dolgorucki – his expressions and gestures being just as emotive as the words delivered by today’s finest actors – allowing the audience to empathise with his character’s plight, and it is captured wonderfully by Josef Von Steinberg’s sweeping camerawork, which adds a grandiose feel to the proceedings. Evelyn Brent is utterly sublime as Natalie Dabrova, a revolutionist who charms the general and eventually succumbs to his whim herself. Although the pair seem like an unlikely match there is a selfless love and devotion in their relationship, and the on screen chemistry between Brent and Jennings allows even their most extraordinary romantic gestures to be grounded in the realms of plausibility.
The stunning organ accompaniment adds to the crescendo of emotion without ever becoming bombastic, acting as the perfect score for this otherwise silent classic. The unforgettable ending will undoubtedly leave an indelible impression on all who experience it, and I hope that it will encourage audiences to seek out more of Josef Von Sternberg’s impressive filmography. This is the perfect opportunity to rediscover an enthralling classic from the silent era and I can wholeheartedly recommend The Last Command to fans of silent films, or those new to this period of film-making. Essential viewing.
Review by Tom Bielby
The Last Command is out in dual format DVD and Blu-ray on 16 May.