"The Last Command" - Josef von Sternberg (1928)

In 1927 Paramount Pictures had already signed up renowned German actor Emil Jannings to work in Hollywood and also had in their corral the up-and-coming director Josef von Sternberg, fresh off his first box-office hit, Underworld (1927).  So it was natural for them to hook up these two agents of German Expressionism for their next production. This turned out to be The Last Command (1928), which was also a hit with the public.

The basic outline of the story concerns a Russian general who had fled the 1917 Russian Communist Revolution with just the clothes on his back and had managed to get to America.  Ten years later this now poverty-stricken man gets hired for a bit part in a Hollywood movie as a Russian general. This may sound like an extremely contrived plot scheme, but it was apparently inspired by some real circumstances.  Film director Ernst Lubitsch once mentioned that he had met a former general from the Imperial Russian Army, Theodore A. Lodigensky, who had turned up in Hollywood looking for work as a movie extra [1].  Of course this idea of a once-powerful man reduced to self-parody is perfect for the Hollywood grist mill.  But von Sternberg took this basic scheme and crafted something even more darkly romantic and interesting (as he also did in connection with his subsequent film featuring Jannings, The Blue Angel).  As The Last Command unfolds, the viewer is presented with two narrative scenarios – an outer, framing story and an inner flashback story– and each is sufficiently compelling that it could almost stand on its own.  What makes things even more interesting is when we consider the thematic elements of those two scenarios together.

The narrative of The Last Command can be considered to have five acts – acts 1 and 5 belonging to the outer narrative, and acts 2-4 belonging to the inner narrative.
1.  Hollywood, 1928
At the outset Hollywood film director Leo Andreyev (played by William Powell) is looking to hire some people as extras in a film about Russia.  For the poor and unemployed, getting a job as an extra has few requirements, so a job call attracts a mob of the desperate.  Among those applying for work is a middle-aged Russian man, Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), who claims, to the disbelief of all who listen, that he was once the supreme commander of the Imperial Russian Army.  Andreyev hires him to play the role of a Russian general, and Sergius is shown scrambling with the other, peon-like extras to get his assigned uniform that he will wear on screen.  But Sergius is clearly a shattered and enfeebled person who is barely able to look after himself.  While putting on his makeup, he looks at himself in a mirror and lapses into a flashback revery of what he was doing ten years earlier.

2.  Grand Duke Sergius Alexander
The time is 1917 and Russia is engaged in a devastating war with Germany and also threatened by a revolutionary insurrection from the Communists.  The authoritative, robust, and super-confidant Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, the commander of the entire army and a cousin of Czar Nicholas II, inspects his troops.  In addition to fighting the war, Sergius’s army is in charge of arresting “revolutionists” (the term for communists in this film), and he is informed that two people working as theatrical performers to entertain the troops are suspected of being such revolutionists.  The two suspects are Leo Andreyev (who we know will later become a Hollywood film director) and his companion, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who is said by a staff officer to be “the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia.” When Sergius is shown pictures of the two, he takes an interest in interviewing them and summons them to his office. When they arrive he haughtily dismisses Leo as an unmanly artiste and a coward for not serving in the armed forces. When Leo contemptuously responds that “it doesn’t require courage to send others to battle and death,” Sergius beats him with his whip.  Leo is sent to jail, but Sergius is attracted to Natalie’s beauty and treats her with respect.

3.  Sergius and Natalie
This next and most interesting section of the film shows the growing relationship between Sergius and Natalie.  Sergius is charmed by Natalie and treats her like a princess, inviting her to join him in the staff officers’ quarters, in the face of which Natalie responds with coy smiles.  But we know from earlier shots that she really is a revolutionist, so she must be play-acting here.

At a sumptuous dinner with Natalie and his general staff present, Sergius is interrupted by an order that the Czar wants to see an attack launched the next morning.  To everyone’s amazement Sergius defies the Czar and refuses the order, because his troops are not in condition to stage such an attack.  To do so would just provide “fuel for the revolution,” he says.  His defiance of the Czar impresses Natalie, and he tells her that he acted so strongly, because he loves his country.
Natalie: “Then why do you continue this stupid war?” 
Sergius: “We must have victory! Defeat means revolution and the collapse of Russia!” 
Natalie: “Then you love Russia so much?” 
Sergius: “I would gladly die tonight if it would help Russia.”

At this, Natalie becomes warmer to Sergius and invites him up to her room.  But this is quickly seen as a pretence, inasmuch as prior to his entry to her quarters, she prepares a gun to use to kill him.  When Sergius arrives, they kiss.  He soon spots the gun under her quilt, though, but pretends not to notice and turns his back on her so that she can shoot him.  There is an interesting camera pan which (a) starts with Natalie in frame drawing her gun to shoot and then (b) pans over to Sergius with his back to her, but fatalistically watching her in the mirror as she is taking her aim. 

But she doesn’t shoot.  She collapses and drops her gun (presumably now expecting that she will be executed).  He asks her why she didn’t shoot, and she says,
“I suppose it was because I couldn’t kill anyone who loves Russia as much as you do.”
They then embrace in mutual confession of their love for each other.  So Natalie had been play-acting about being charmed by Sergius, but gradually she started really falling in love with him.

4.  The Revolution

With Sergius, accompanied by Natalie, heading out on a train to supervise the troops at the war front, the Russian Revolution is coming to a head.  Leon Trotsky is shown preparing for the takeover, and a signal event will be the capture of the train Sergius and his officer staff are on. At a stop along the way, the train is duly overrun by an angry revolutionary mob, and all the officers are dragged out.  The mob looks like they will tear Sergius to pieces, but Natalie jumps out and becomes a fiery revolutionist again. She grabs a revolutionary flag, mocks Sergius in front of the crowd, and tells them that it would be best first to subject him to extreme humiliation before killing him. So she convinces them to make him stoke the locomotive engine all the way to Petrograd before he is to be executed there.

The train sets out with Sergius stoking the engine.  Along the way, Natalie sneaks to the engine cabin and tells him that she still loves him – she only called him out to save his life at that moment.  She gives to him the pearl necklace he had earlier given to her so that now he can use it to bribe his way out of Russia. Then Sergius jumps from the train and watches from the ground as it steams away from him.  But in the distance, he sees the train crossing a railway bridge that collapses, killing all on board, including his beloved Natalie.

5.  The Hollywood Film Shoot
Sergius’s flashback is over, and we return to the present on the film stage.  The director Leo Andreyev is inspecting his army-costumed extras just as haughtily as Sergius used to do. When Sergius sees Andreyev, he finally recognizes him for the first time.  Now it’s Leo’s turn to lord it over Sergius.  A studio scene has been setup to show a Russian army charge to be led by Sergius.  Leo establishes the atmosphere for the shoot by having the Russian national anthem played (remember this is a silent film, so this is to inspire Sergius), turning on the wind machine, and having the stage dramatically lit. This atmosphere turns out to be too real for the mentally scarred Sergius, and he starts believing that this is a real battle. With the cameras rolling, his passion and fire come back to him, and he dramatically leads what he believes is a real charge. The strain, though, is too much for him, and he collapses and dies of a heart attack. The assistant director, amazed at Sergius’s performance, notes sadly that he was a great actor. Leo responds reflectively by saying he was more than that, he was a great man.

Von Sternberg cinematically tells the story of The Last Command with his expressionistic techniques.  These include many dramatically lit, in-depth camera compositions that establish the desired context and mood.  Almost everything takes place at night, when shadows loom. Further colouring the proceedings was the use of cigarette smoke. The main characters, particularly Powell and Jannings, are almost constantly shown puffing on cigarettes and enshrouding themselves in billowing smoke. These often smoky, in-depth establishing shots were punctuated with dramatic closeups that conveyed the characterological developments. Although Jannings was a veteran of conventional silent screen aesthetics and liked to make exaggerated dramatic gestures, von Sternberg kept these relatively under control and got more out of the moody, expressive closeups of both Jannings and Evelyn Brent.

With these expressive techniques, von Sternberg essentially wove together two stories, each with its own theme:
  • The outer story of Sergius’s fall from power and his “last command” in Hollywood.  This story is basically told in acts 1, 2, a piece of 4, and 5.  The theme for this narrative is basically dignity.
  • The inner story of Sergius and Natalie.  This story is told in acts 3 and 4.  Here the theme is love.
Sergius’s Fall
The outer story is the one people usually talk about in connection with this film and is about Sergius’s loss of status and reduction to an impoverished state.  But in the final scene he is thought to have achieved some sort of redemption. The underlying theme for this scenario may be referred to here as dignity, although that particular term is fraught with misunderstandings. I basically agree with Arthur Schopenhauer, who correctly dismissed the notion of dignity as “the shibboleth of all perplexed and empty-headed moralists” [2]. In fact this fabricated pseudo-concept (I say “pseudo” because there is no common agreement on what it means) is, rather than a human right, often evoked simply to justify violent acts of vengeance that obliterate human rights, particularly in the Middle East and in Asia. Unfortunately, the idea of dignity was explicitly championed by Kant and was later enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights [3], so it does retain some currency today.  Samuel Moyn offers some further useful commentary on this troublesome notion in his article, “Dignity’s Due” [4]. Anyway, although I do not believe that dignity is at all a human right, we might agree that, on the basis of a person’s folk-psychological self-conception, someone might (a) believe that they inherently have dignity or (b) be thought to have it. And in some societies across the ocean from America, maintaining one’s dignity is all-important.  So in the outer story Sergius is shown to have lost his dignity, but (perhaps) to have regained it at the end.

Sergius’s and Natalie’s Love
However, it is the inner story about the improbable relationship between Sergius and Natalie that elevates the film to a high level and shows off von Sternberg at his best. There are clearly paradoxes about this relationship.  How could Natalie fall in love with Sergius, and so quickly? Does she only love him because he loves Russia? Does Sergius have faith in her, or is he fatalistic, when he turns his back on her, knowing that she intends to shoot him?  These questions probably have no answers.  All we can say is that for von Sternberg, love is not rational; true love invariably involves complete surrender to the beloved (and this notion is repeated in many of his greatest films).

Crucial to this narrative theme is the performance of Evelyn Brent, who had earlier starred in Underworld but is even more dramatically alluring here.  To me, she embodies the unique, animated glamour characteristic of the 1920s – a special kind of allure that has only been retained by French women today. She is seen to move from play-acting to authenticity and back with bewildering precipitancy, but she has her heart in it all the way. 

Their love sheds light on what was the real admirable virtue of Sergius. And this is the ultimate romantic message that von Sternberg delivers. Sergius was not a man who loved both Russia and Natalie just for reasons that could be argued logically. He loved them without rational justification or qualification. And whenever he felt he was in a position to do good (even in his final delusional state), he took action with passion.  For this reason he really was a “great man”, although I don’t think Leo Andreyev understood it that way.

  1. Anton Kaes, “Illusions and Delusions”, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, (2010), The Criterion Collection.
  2. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality, (1837/2005), Dover Classics, p. 51.
  3. “United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights”, (1948), The United Nations
  4. Samuel Moyn, “Dignity’s Due”, (2013), The Nation, November 4, 2013.

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