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"And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried
yet another extra to Hollywood"
The Last Command
1928. Paramount, Directed by Josef von Sternberg; script by John F. Goodrich, titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz. With Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell
"Hollywood! The Magic Empire of the 20th Century! The Mecca of the World!"
This scene-setting title is followed by a fade-in to the production offices of Eureka Studios. Here the autocratic director Leo Andreyev, who we learn has recently emigrated from revolutionary Russia, is looking through photos of extras. He starts at a familiar face and then, smiling to himself, casts that old man as a Russian general in his latest picture. The Last Command then flashes back ten years to explain Andreyev's start of recognition.
It is the final days of imperial Russia. Both the director and the old extra are there. The extra, Sergius Alexander, really is a Czarist general. We see him at his arrogant, sensual heigh and watch as he loses everything in the Revolution. Leo, the director, is a leading Bolshevik, and there's a romantic rivalry with Sergius too. As Russia explodes, the movie returns to 1920s Hollywood. On the set of Leo's WWI epic we watch the now-deranged Sergius Alexander play the general one last time.
The connection between the two stories is pretty shaky on a plot levelit seems, well, unlikely that both the commanding general of the Czar's army and his Bolshevik nemesis would end up in Hollywood. But this is von Sternberg, and the only logic worth looking for is emotional. The point is to contrast the dissolution of one of history's last great empires with the rise of a modern, American empire, one based on illusion and imitation.
Von Sternberg finds many visual parallels between St. Petersburg and Los Angeles. His Hollywood resembles Europe during the Great Warchaotic, desperate, filled with churning crowds of resentful men. When the extras hired for Leo's war movie are herded onto the lot and issued uniforms and ordered about, they look like inductees into a real army. They sit around wearing helmets and holding bayonets, grousing and snarling; if you walked into The Last Command at this moment you wouldn't know whether you were seeing the Hollywood sequence or the Russian sequence.
By the same token, the Imperial Russian Army has a lot in common with the movie business. The officers, Sergius Alexander especially, preen and strut in elaborate uniforms. Sergius calls in a batallion from the front to be deloused and re-equipped in order to "play parade for the Czar." Later, he is told to "stage an offensive" when the Czar visits the front. Even the revolutionaries, Leo and Natalie, are actors. Officially, they are members of the Kiev Imperial Theater; unofficially they dissemble repeatedly, for both political and romantic reasons.
The two worlds come together at the end of the movie. Sergius Alexander has been costumed and made up to look as he did when he was a real General. He even adds his own medal to the prop medals supplied by the studio. (When he shows the assistant director that a certain decoration should be worn on the left side"I know because I used to be a general in Russia"the A.D. says scornfully, "We made twenty Russian pictures. You can't tell me anything about Russia!") Led onto the set, he believes in his confusion that he is back on the battlefield. One shot shows Sergius and Leo next to each other, in half-profile with identical expressions on their faces. Both survey the troops. But where Leo sees extras getting in place for a shot, Sergius sees soldiers headed for battle. It's not clear at this moment that there is much difference between them, although of courseI'm not sure this matters to von Sternbergreal soldiers die, real wars destroy civilizations, and real history is tragic while Hollywood-style history is merely sentimental.
Clearly von Sternberg relished the ironic and pathetic story of a deposed nobleman briefly returned to glory as he re-enacts his story for the cameras. It's a resonant myth; one hears anecdotes about dethroned royalty serving as technical advisors on Hollywood period films, and former cowboys and WWI flying aces finding stunt work in the movies after the authentic sources of their livelihoods had vanished. Hollywood is the place where history's colorful casualties resurface to exploit, parody, or (in the case of Leo, revolutionary turned autocratic film director) betray their authentic selves. The "magic Empire of the 20th century" practices a form of cannibalism, it would seem.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein