Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg) ****

Josef Von Sternberg

Cast: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell

Story: A General (Jannings) in Czarist Russia is reduced to nothing after the revolutionm, even losing the woman he loved (Brent). Now in the United States, he ends up getting a job as an extra in a movie about the very revolution that deposed him.

Background: The story was inspired by the life of General Lodijensky, a Czarist General who also fled to the United States and became a Hollywood extra. Director Josef von Sternberg had already made a name for himself with the previous year's Underworld (#3 on my 1927 list and also starring Evelyn Brent). Jannings was a highly regarded veteran actor who already had over 50 credits to his name.

Thoughts: Von Sternberg nails it once again. He is clearly one of the best pure storytellers of his era, brilliantly juxtaposing the General's life before and after the war by alternating the narrative, never once losing focus. Emil Jannings gives an amazing performance in the lead role, showing us so many dimensions and layers of this General, making him a complex and fascinating individual. The romance between Jannings and Brent is at first problematic and contains a ridiculous title card (You are now my prisoner of war... and prisoner of love!"), but the two actors completely sell it, and the ultimate fate of the romance packs the required punch. The plot escalates to a bravura finale that still has time for one final moment of understanding between two enemies.

Postscript: Emil Jannings would become the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actor (for both The Last Command and Way of the Flesh). He still had many years left in his career, including another outing with Von Sternberg called The Blue Angel. William Powell (who plays the Hollywood director) would have a long and successful career, making a name for himself as The Thin Man. Von Sternberg would make several films with Marlene Dietrich, being nominated for two of them, and continued directing through the 50s.

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