The Film (4.5/5)
Leo Andreyev (played by William Powell) is a famous Russian director living in Hollywood and his latest project is a war epic about the 1917 Russian revolution. His only problem is he can’t find an actor to play the tragic war general. While flipping through photos he spots Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), a man he once knew in Russia who just happened to be a fallen general. Andreyev calls Sergius in to be an extra and we see the back story of how he fell from power and fled to America. Does Andreyev have good reasons for casting Sergius, or is he plotting his revenge?
Josef von Sternberg is mostly well known to film buffs for discovering and shaping the image of actress Marlene Dietrich with 1930’s The Blue Angel. But before this, he pretty much invented the gangster film as we know it with 1927’s Underworld. His next movie was The Last Command, and what a creative movie it is. The movie begins with the title card “Hollywood- 1928, The Magic empire of the twentieth century”, and we are quickly sent into our nonlinear story about rags to riches from both main characters. We have Sergius Alexander who goes from great man to a broken shell ready to die, while Leo Andreyev went from freedom fighter to a famous all powerful movie director. The movie balances out this duality without damning either character and neither becomes a villain.
Josef von Sternberg is known for filling his films with glamour and style, and this movie is no exception. The set designs are breathtaking with plenty of great touches from the big rugs, fur pull overs, and shiny jewels. The two big sets are the Hollywood studio and the Russian headquarters, both are massive with plenty of gliding camera movements throughout to help show them off. The production values for this film can put some epics to shame. The camerawork and lighting are both well done. You can feel the dread during the train revolt as well in the battle aftershocks. The moody lighting classes up the film to a high level.
Casting wise all performances are on target. Emil Jannings (Last Laugh, Blue Angel) shows a huge range of emotions and you can feel every inch of pain he is going through with that nervous shake. He one of the first Academy Awards for best actor for his Performance. William Powell shines in both halves of the film, He is beyond smooth as the powerful director and unhinged as the tired freedom fighter. Evelyn Brent is also solid as freedom fighter Natalie Dabrova who almost murders the general but falls in love with him.
The Last Command is a stylish and emotional drama with plenty of action. For a silent film it was ahead of its time with its use of Hollywood and showing the behind the scenes of filmmaking. But it’s also a powerful drama with an excellent cast and a director at the height of his power.
The set has both Region B Blu-ray and region 2 Dvd. The movie is presented with its original organ score by Gaylord Carter, which is uncompressed on the Blu-ray. The track is well leveled and sounds lovely. The Blu-ray has a 1080p HD transfer. Since this is a silent film and thus nearly a century old, the level of print damage changes from scene to scene. For the most part the print looks wonderful. The close-ups have a sparkle, and the black levels look spot on. No foggy greys.
Eureka has delivered another good round of extras. We get an interview with film critic Tony Rayns covering the background on the film and von Sternberg’s career. Next up we get Sternberg til’ 29, a video essay by scholar Tag Gallagher. Finishing off the package we have a 32-page booklet with an excerpt from “Fun in a Chinese Laundry” The auto biography of von Sternberg, two vintage reviews for the film, a 1929 profile of Emil Jannings, and archival images.
Eureka! Gives this great silent film the release it deserves. With the fine transfer and information packed extras, you could not ask for more. If you’re a silent film lover, this is the Blu-ray for you. Highly Recommended.