The Last Command

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

The early images, where the extras are getting assigned and pushed all over the place, are tremendously, world-beatingly textured and graded and even palpable. Sternberg (and Glennon, and Drier) was a picture maker without parallel. Isn’t that enough? Yes, actually. The parallels and ironies of the story may not stand up to scrutiny, and the undeniably stirring conclusion is stirringly nonsensical. Doesn’t matter, though, since it takes all kinds, and we should be glad for these sensibilities.

Let’s also celebrate the alchemy of that long Russian sequence, in which the patently artificial settings convince and transcend because of their superb theatricality. Film lost this—it’s not fake, it’s stylized! That way lies insight, even revelation. Well, maybe not quite, but this Jannings/Brett romance ends up being deeply, even movingly chivalric. As with von Sternberg’s just previous Underworld, there’s something of von Stroheim at the edges here, and it’s all to the good. Also, this film actually takes us to the very heart of the Hollywood project. For a long time it appropriated and maybe colonized or even emasculated the world’s troubles and stories. But it also told them, and reflected more diversity and profundity than we give it credit for. If this concoction about the Russian Revolution leads us to John Reed, or Edmund Wilson, then we’ve got our cake and we’ve eaten it too.

This is me. I find that in the end it’s still moonshine. As much as you appreciate and enjoy films like this, or more particularly from this moral and material place, they just doesn’t quite take you to the stratosphere, or to the core.