With swift production time and a mass of tremendous films under his belt already, Josef von Sternberg found himself with initial confidence from executives, to make a film of his choosing. This freedom from producers led to The Last Command, a scathing review of the Russian Revolution and the grim realities of the Hollywood machine, pairing the two together with gratifying results. Pairings and criticisms of big production companies are not new, they’re rather frequent in the modern era, but to attack an industry to this extent during the birth of talkies is quite the bold move. An interesting one too, given how much there is to unpack within The Last Command.
Sternberg offers a vast array of messages and themes. The Hollywood Breadline, for instance, is a prime display of how difficult extras have it. Manic shoving, toing and froing between various windows with dead-eyed, soullessly bored propmen, it comes together without a tinge of love for Hollywood. Stark as this impression may be, it ties nicely with the overwhelming fear and horrors found in its flashbacks. Defiantly moving and brutal, Sternberg’s direction encapsulates various layers of triumph. The witty nature of his craft comes across as a volatile critique, his message propped up successfully by sweepingly grand camerawork. Attentiveness and fixations on detail make The Last Command an inspiring piece, a creative stroke of brilliance that utilises lighting and framing beautifully at times.
Emil Jannings’ was one of the all-time greats. A marvellous command of the camera in Faust and The Last Laugh, his powerful presence is just as strong with The Last Command. The parallels found between his screen-role in the brutal land of Tinseltown and his time as a general in the Russian military are reflected on tremendously. The Last Command hints at brutal strength being a necessary factor in survival on both fronts, the two bleeding into one another as the leading man loses his bearings and sense of reality. Sergius Alexander (Jannings) and the demons that he channels into his work as an extra are captured with invigorating importance.
A director confronting his own career and those that placed him in a position to create it, The Last Command is a brilliant and engaging piece that leaves such a cluster of engaging messages. It’d be rather difficult to pick out just one independent strand of criticism or theory that this film has to offer. Sternberg’s direction is inspired and engages with his concepts thoroughly well. Jannings and Sternberg make for such an imposing pairing, and this collaboration between the two offers up rich storytelling devices, swathes of detailed brilliance and ambitious prose, set to the backdrops of Russian revolutions and the sinister underbelly of Hollywood’s image. A tortured soul that gave a monumental effort to his country, reduced to a role as an extra, mocked by a director who knows of his past. Truly striking work.