review: Von Sternberg Dazzles On DVD

I am extremely happy because one of my all-time favorite films—The Last Command—has finally come to DVD, as part of a glorious boxed set from Criterion called 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg.

I have a special fondness for the late silent era, when the art and craft of filmmaking reached new heights: storytelling, camerawork, and production design, influenced by Europeans like Ernst Lubtisch and F.W. Murnau, produced a wealth of sophisticated, often innovative pictures. One of the men who led the way was Josef von Sternberg (born Joe Sternberg), whose first job in the industry was repairing damaged 35mm prints in Fort Lee, New Jersey! He learned a great deal by literally handling film, and observing how various directors approached their jobs; in time he became an editor, then an assistant to several experienced directors. His first, boldly experimental feature, The Salvation Hunters (1925) was hailed by Charlie Chaplin, and overnight von Sternberg was being celebrated as—

—a bona fide genius. But his career faltered until he landed at Paramount in 1927, where he was given a chance to exert his artistic influence on a gangster saga written by Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht. This was Underworld. It led to a series of exquisitely made features, three of which are presented in this welcome DVD set.

I admire Underworld, which helped set the stage for gangster films to come, and Docks of New York, which also stars burly, expressive George Bancroft. They are both prized examples of Hollywood moviemaking, in which mainstream, audience-pleasing stories are told by an artist with an exceptional eye and an editor’s understanding of cinematic technique.

This frame provides an indication of von Sternberg’s mastery of light, shadow and composition.

But while I respect those films, I love The Last Command (1928). Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award as Best Actor for his work in this and The Way of All Flesh (now, sadly, a lost film, like von Sternberg’s The Drag Net and The Case of Lena Smith).

No one played proud, puffed-up men heading for a fall quite like Jannings, who patented the archetype in Murnau’s The Last Laugh and drew on it again in von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. But there is nothing rote or clichéd about his performance in The Last Command, where we first encounter him as a broken man, reduced to working as an extra at a Hollywood studio. There, director William Powell recognizes him and hires him to appear in his epic story of the Russian Revolution—knowing full well that he actually was a Grand Duke, and General of all the Russian Armies under the Czar.

The opening scenes of The Last Command capture the workaday atmosphere of a movie studio without a drop of sentiment. Then, in flashback, we see Jannings in all his glory, during the waning days of Czarist rule, when he meets Powell and Evelyn Brent. The story, while melodramatic, does not revert to formula, but introduces nuance to its characters and their relationships…and the finale is staggering. I first saw this film as a teenager at the Museum of Modern Art and it blew me away. I revisited it years later, in its VHS release, and found it hadn’t lost any of its power; when I hosted a showing of the 35mm print at the Telluride Film Festival several years ago I was pleased to see that a large audience—including many people who not only hadn’t seen it, but weren’t steeped in silent cinema—found it surprisingly modern and moving.

Emil Jannings as the imperious Russian general in The Last Command.

As usual, Criterion has done its best to clean up the surviving 35mm elements, which are less than perfect, and the results are quite good. For each film one can choose from two music scores, which are contributed by composer-conductor Robert Israel, the three-man Alloy Orchestra, pianist Donald Sosin and singer Joanna Seaton. One can hardly go wrong with any of these options. (All of these artists discuss their approach to the scores in a booklet that accompanies the DVD set.)

On the Docks of New York disc there is a fascinating 1968 interview with von Sternberg from Swedish television. Here is the artist as an old man, spare with his words but eloquent just the same; he is serious of mien but not without a sense of humor. And at the end of the piece, the interviewer asks if he would spontaneously demonstrate his approach to lighting (as Kevin Brownlow did on another occasion).

At one point in the interview he says that he is especially proud that Underworld forced the management of the Paramount Theater in New York to stay open all night. I took this with a grain of salt, thinking it was the boast of a Hollywood veteran. Then I watched Janet Bergstrom’s outstanding video essay about von Sternberg’s early career, which appears on the Underworld disc. There, amidst the visual rarities she has unearthed, is a newspaper ad for the Paramount theater announcing the addition of an 11:45 p.m. show on opening day for the movie—and a subsequent ad noting that popular demand has caused its transfer to the Rivoli.

Bergstrom has done a prodigious amount of homework, providing details that flesh out the broad outline of von Sternberg’s unusual career—and offer an important context for appreciating what he achieved with Underworld. This is film scholarship of the highest order, and it’s a privilege to have it so widely available on this DVD. There are essays by other scholars in a 96-page booklet included with the boxed set, along with Ben Hecht’s original story (which he thought von Sternberg subverted in his revisions), and an excerpt from the director’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in which he discusses working with Emil Jannings.

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April 2024