Josef von Sternberg was originally from Vienna but he grew up in the US after his family emigrated when he was still 2. He worked his way up through the Hollywood system and by the ’20s he was one of the most intriguing directors of the period. He would become more famous when he went to Germany to make the bona-fide classic The Blue Angel which would spark one of the quintessential director/actor relationships of all-time with his muse Marlene Dietrich.
The Last Command comes at the tail end of his silent period. He had a big success with his gangster film Underworld which was a much-needed boost since his previous film A Woman of the Sea was destroyed by Charlie Chaplin. The film’s plot was based on a former Russian general Ernst Lubitsch met and the 2nd time he met him; he was working a day extra on a film. Even though he only gets a story by credit Sternberg is most likely responsible for the majority of the finished screenplay.
The majority of the film is told through flashback in Czarist Russia when the revolution happened. Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) and is dealing with two actors who are considered dangerous revolutionaries. However in the backdrop the Czar is putting more troops to the frontline and the Bolsheviks are on the hunt for the Grand Duke. Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) one of the actors deemed a dangerous revolutionary becomes the Duke’s companion. This is bookend with scenes of a now poor Sergius working as extra on a film about the Revolution itself.
The film is one of the earliest films that I can recall which is about the art of filmmaking although the majority of the film’s action is the Russian revolution. The tracking shot of Sergius picking up his wardrobe is truly spellbinding. The scope of the film is also breathtaking the shot of the troops willing to defend the Tsar just reminds you how rubbish CGI is compared to the scale films had in a pre CGI world.
Despite it being fundamentally a take on the Russian revolution. It’s full of humour and is joyous viewing experience. Emil Jannings who was a massive star in his native Germany is wonderful as Sergius. Despite a strained relationship with Sternberg even though they would work again on The Blue Angel despite vowing never to again. The disc from Eureka is exceptional as you always expect with an interview Tony Rayns and a visual essay on Sternberg’s career till 1929. Typically a booklet with writing on the film is also included.