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The Last Command: Illusions and Delusions

Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) was first and foremost a star vehicle for Emil Jannings, the internationally known, Swiss-born actor, who had left Germany in October 1926 to work for Paramount Pictures. During his two and a half years in Hollywood, Jannings made six films, five of which are considered lost except for small fragments and a trailer. The only one that fully survives is The Last Command, his second American feature, which premiered in January 1928, about half a year after his Hollywood debut, The Way of All Flesh (directed by Victor Fleming). His performances in these two works earned him the first-ever Academy Award for best actor, in 1929.

While von Sternberg was still relatively unknown in 1928—The Last Command was only his second major film (after Underworld, 1927)—Jannings, ten years older, had already starred in fifty German films. These included such melodramas as Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion (1919, a.k.a. Madame DuBarry), F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and E. A. Dupont’s Variety (1925), all of which were widely seen and admired in the United States. The Last Command, like these earlier films, tells the story of the downfall and humiliation of a despotic man, and Jannings again fills the role with the theatrical intensity he learned in his years of expressionist stage acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin. What counted in that mode of performance was not realism but visual impact, projecting the inner world onto the outer in abstracted, stylized, and distorted ways that expressed the essence of a character’s state of mind, and a broad subjectivity that saw the world (at the time wracked with war and revolution) as fragmented and disjointed. In his German films, when abject suffering grips his oversize body, Jannings personifies debasement and degradation. Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Von Sternberg’s 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, reveals his obsession with the nature of acting: three long chapters (including one entirely on Jannings, partially reprinted here) are devoted to the role actors play in his films. Von Sternberg is especially interested in distinguishing stage acting from acting in film. While the theater actor is fully present for his audience, the film performer acts for only the camera. It is up to the director, von Sternberg emphasizes, to shape, control, and improve the actor’s appearance and performance through camera work, lighting, and—long after the actor has left the set—editing. He comes to the sobering conclusion that the film actor is “little more than one of the complex materials used in our craft.” Von Sternberg claims that his inquiry into the “nature of our work is not to reduce the actor’s stature . . . but merely to study it.” And what better subject of study could there be than Emil Jannings?

In The Last Command, the framing story, which takes place on the Hollywood set of a film about the Russian Revolution, establishes this mode of inquiry. In it, an old actor (Jannings) is seen early on slowly applying makeup to transform himself into a character who will ultimately lose his ability to distinguish life from fiction. There is irony (and a touch of sadism) in the fact that the young von Sternberg has cast Germany’s biggest star in the role of a Hollywood bit player. And the story features the further irony that this Hollywood extra is, in fact (or rather, in fiction!), a deposed tsarist general who now has to play a version of his former self. This elusive and maddening intertwining of life and fiction that acting requires lies at the core of von Sternberg’s film. 

“Hollywood—1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century! The Mecca of the World!” The Last Command’s opening title cards anchor it in the moment of its release and announce its director’s ironic attitude. The film’s fictive director (William Powell) riffles through a stack of photographs, looking for an actor to play the role of the general. A picture of Jannings’s Sergius Alexander catches his eye. Alexander, as it turns out, is a former Russian general who fled to the United States and ended up an extra in Hollywood. (“Little experience. Works for $7.50 a day,” the self-description on the back of his photograph declares.) The director, himself a former Russian revolutionary, recognizes the actor as his tormentor and rival for a young woman (Evelyn Brent) when they were both fighting, on opposite sides, in the battles of 1917. The stage is thus set for a fictional replay of the revolution, but with the roles reversed. The ex-revolutionary, as dictatorial film director, forces the former general to reenact the trauma of his downfall and defeat. 

The story of the revolution is told by way of an extended flashback, triggered by Jannings’s mournful look at himself in the makeup mirror. He remembers who he was, a young and dashing imperial general, during the last days of the revolution. We see him in action, arrogantly deciding the fate of Russia’s enemies and falling in love with the young revolutionary Natalie. We know that the tsarist’s days are numbered. The proletarian revolutionaries (not surprisingly portrayed, in Hollywood’s counterrevolutionary spirit, as drunkards and thugs) rip off his fur coat and threaten his life, but Natalie rescues him from the mob’s murderous rage. Deeply traumatized by his humiliation and last-minute escape, the general also witnesses his beloved’s death. The film leaves him abandoned on the snow-covered Russian steppe—and abruptly cuts back to the Hollywood set, where he is being made up to play a tsarist general very much like the one we just saw in Russia. He is thus preparing to play a fictional version of himself, but, of course, we know that it is Jannings acting in both roles: there is nothing outside of acting in a film. 

Von Sternberg’s play with fictional layers is further complicated by the fact that the movie is based on the life of General Lodijenski, a former tsarist who went into exile in New York, where he opened a Russian restaurant, before going to Hollywood and working as an extra. Although Jannings claims in his autobiography, Theater, Film, das Leben und ich (1951), that the story was his idea (and an eleven-page treatment of it by him in the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would seem to support this), von Sternberg contends in his own memoir that it originated with Ernst Lubitsch, who didn’t think it was good enough for a film. Nevertheless, Lajos Bíró, a Hungarian exile in Hollywood, used the story to write a screenplay—and indeed received an Oscar nomination for it in 1929. The not always reliable von Sternberg would later say Bíró’s name was in the credits only to please the studio. But while the film’s origins remain murky, all would agree that once Paramount asked von Sternberg to direct the film, he reworked the script and added the all-important framing narrative.

Von Sternberg’s disdain for the “Hollywood film machine,” so vividly expressed in his autobiography, is quite evident in this framing story, which, among other things, pokes fun at the Hollywood conventions governing what a film set in Russia should look like. When a war medal is placed on the wrong side of the general’s uniform, he objects but is overruled with the argument that the studio has made a dozen “Russian pictures” and hence knows better. And at the center of it all is Jannings as a Hollywood extra, “humiliated by the inhuman and idiotic ceremonial of filmmaking,” as von Sternberg would write. (It may not be a coincidence that Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapic´’s experimental short The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra—whichfollows the rise and fall of an actor whose anonymity is symbolized by the number on his forehead—also appeared in 1928; Florey, a French-born filmmaker, had served as an assistant director on two early von Sternberg films, before Underworld, now lost.) Von Sternberg’s account of working with Jannings, who craved attention like a child, is rich with anecdotes, as is his ironic description of the on-set tensions between real Russians (mostly exiled victims of the Bolsheviks) and those who, like Jannings, impersonated Russians. 

The Last Command contains echoes of Jannings’s famous role in The Last Laugh. The exceptional importance assumed by the uniform in that German classic is carried over into the American film. When, in The Last Laugh, Jannings’s nameless character is demoted from his elevated position as a doorman to washroom attendant, he takes off his uniform and hands it over in an excruciating gesture of dejection, as if relinquishing his identity along with the garment. In The Last Command, we encounter the reverse: standing in a line with other extras, Jannings picks up a uniform to regain his former identity as a Russian general. What he surrenders in the German film he recoups in the American one. Employees in the costume department hurtle the bundled uniform to Jannings unceremoniously, indifferent to what it symbolizes. Without his uniform, Jannings looks as wretched in the American film as he does in the earlier German one. In both movies, the uniform changes the person: it bestows status, glamour, identity. The Last Command can also be read as an American counterpoint to the German film: it concludes with the death of the protagonist, while the German film offers a satiric Hollywood ending. The only intertitle of The Last Laugh states: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” With this, Murnau reveals the ending of a melodrama to be a mere construct: it is up to the director to end the story as he wishes. 

The same level of reflection about the act of constructing filmic fiction occurs in The Last Command. Toward the end of the film, we witness the creation of a scene—the director calls for various elements, one after another: “Music, please—the Russian National Anthem!” “Wind machine!” “Lights!” And finally, “Camera!” Jannings is directed to inspire his troops to follow him and fight a final battle. The uniform has transformed him into his former chauvinist character (to the sound of the national anthem), and he rapidly loses his grip on “reality.” Past becomes present, and acting becomes life. Frequent crosscuts to the running camera and the director, who monitors the scene with increasing apprehension, keep the viewer distanced from the pathos of the general reliving his traumatic past. A revolutionary soldier attacks the general: “You’ve given your last command! A new day is here! Down with your Russia!” Jannings strikes him down, grabbing the flag and climbing out of the trench. Hallucinatory images of the dead from his former Russia appear as superimposed ghostly figures—signifying (in the tradition of German expressionist cinema) that the general is going crazy. As his gestures become more imperious and threatening, reinforced by an extreme low-angle camera and high-contrast lighting, he exclaims: “The command is forward—to victory. Long Live Russia!” The reenactment of his past proves to be fatal: he dies in the arms of the director, his former adversary. 

The Last Command can be seen, in part, as a melodrama about the Russian Revolution, with political conflicts translated into private tensions between two men over a woman whose death allows their reconciliation. But von Sternberg’s framing of this story turns the film into something else altogether, taking us out of the melodrama to explore the nature of acting and pretense. The last line of the movie states: “He was more than a great actor—he was a great man.” This distinction points to the director’s ambivalent attitude about the role of actors in the make-believe world of cinema. 

According to his autobiography, von Sternberg’s relationship with the star of his film was tense. Nevertheless, this Hollywood encounter between
the fastidious Austrian-born director and the overbearing German actor was of great consequence for film history: it led to von Sternberg’s legendary collaboration with Jannings on The Blue Angel, which began production in Germany in late 1929 and was released as the first major German sound film in April 1930. (Jannings had returned to Germany in May 1929, once he realized that his accent would be an obstacle in the new era of sound film. He received his Oscar in absentia.) The Blue Angel, which launched the career of Marlene Dietrich, follows The Last Command in its exploration of performance (of both the nightclub singer in front of her audience and the teacher in front of his class); it also dramatizes the demise of an old tyrant. And once again, the actual shooting of the film turned into a battle of wills between the autocratic director and his equally autocratic actor; both swore never to work with the other again. A few years after The Blue Angel, Jannings became part of the flourishing Nazi film industry. Von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with his new star, Dietrich, the night that The Blue Angel opened. In the early thirties, he made six stunning films with her in Hollywood that continued the underlying project of The Last Command: to probe the magic and mystery—and perils—of double identities inherent in the very nature of film acting.

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