The Last Command ★★★★

Josef von Sternberg was not simply a poet of film language. He was also an astute philosopher on the transformative nature of film, especially when it came to actors and how their performances are constructed by the director and editor. Emil Jannings, for example, is excellent as Duke Sergius Alexander, commander of the Russian imperial forces, and he is affecting as a lowly extra barely earning a living in Hollywood. But in the moment the former Duke is directed (or commanded) to act like a general, he is transported to his former self. Time collapses. But rather than relive a tragedy, he recreates his past as triumph. And, thus, in a moment of movie magic he is transformed and redeemed (as is his director played by William Powell, his former enemy).

But, of course, the Duke dies. The alchemy can be dangerous. Von Sternberg’s approach to film was often tinged with acid, because he understood (although despised) the nature of the business: that studios were soulless production lines, that tragedy was meat for entertainment, and that great hams like Jannings could be presented as great artists and great men (von Sternberg’s chapter on Jannings in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry is priceless). However, one needs only to see how the camera lingers and the lighting caresses Evelyn Brent to understand that von Sternberg’s priority is to portray the inner lives of his characters, to penetrate and portray their spirits. This is the core of von Sternberg’s cinematic art, even if he tempers it with irony and satire. His approach, though, becomes more unrestrained and abstract in the films with Marlene Dietrich.