Josef Von Sternberg

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John Tibbetts

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

Never has Josef von Sternberg made the surfaces of reality seem so fragile and the shapes of illusion so tangible as in The Last Command (1928). He deliberately creates not one but several worlds and then dissolves the barriers between them. A carefully constructed film with meticulous attention to techniques, detail, and symbol—the whole nevertheless emerges not firm and clear, but vague and half-seen. This is a remarkable kind of alchemy …; moreover, it is exemplary of his ability to shape, reshape, and destroy his worlds so that they are continually shifting and becoming; it is the essentially modern device of clarity seeking ambiguity, rather than the other way around. (p. 68)

The narrative structure is at least tri-level. I say "at least" because nothing is quite as it seems. There is a modern story of the making of a film about the Russian Revolution; there is a flashback to revolutionary Russia of 1917; and there is the Hollywood film itself which concerns that revolution. This last combines elements of the first two levels. It provides a fusion of them and extension of their meaning.

I have stressed the fusion of the three narrative levels. The connecting links among them are of three kinds: (1) similar characters and plot elements, (2) similar cinematic techniques, (3) leitmotif devices. (p. 69)

Similar cinematic techniques also unite the three levels. The whole of The Last Command, except a handful of exterior scenes, is a studio product. The flashback is treated in Sternberg's best studio style; and the "film" is shot in a studio. Just before the cameras turn for the "film," Sternberg takes great pains to show the apparatus of a Hollywood studio in action. Sternberg's preoccupation with studio shooting is well-known. It enabled him to have complete and dictatorial control over acting, camera movement, and lighting. It represents his own "command" over the entirety of The Last Command….

The lighting is never flat: it is always low-key with much of the frame lost in inky darkness, allowing for select points of emphasis. When Sergius walks down the hallway of his cheap hotel to answer the casting office's call for an extra part (the call itself being another kind of command), he seems to materialize from the shadows. The effect is of transitoriness, as if he is only half real….

[Cinematic] techniques aid the repetition of plot elements in the third level of narrative, the "film," effecting the final fusion of past and present, illusion and reality. What had been a bare set in the middle of a studio becomes, under the lights and wind machines, the stuff of the flashback. (p. 70)

Leitmotif devices also unite the three narrative levels. In the opening shots of the modern story Leo Andreyev, the Hollywood director/ex-revolutionary, has his cigarette lit by a dozen outstretched matches. This little tableau has an almost religious configuration. It is repeated many times in both the modern and flashback stories; mute obsequiousness and fawning homage move from one echelon of power to another, all the while gracefully balanced upon the tip of a slender cigarette…. Also there is Sergius' aide who, after gloating over his downfall, after wearing Sergius' coat and smoking his cigarettes, is shot to death in a brawl. The cigarette falls from his lips, a symbol of departed grace and power. Sternberg's achievement with this leitmotif device is twofold: he uses it extensively in the various narrative levels of Command as a linking device; and he invests it with comments on the cyclical destruction inherent in power structures. Perhaps it is fair to say that...

(This entire section contains 981 words.)

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Sternberg knew quite a bit about the power of authority and the pitfalls that inevitably accompanied it. (p. 71)

[Reality] (the flashback and the modern story) is linked by style and content to the "film" being shot in the Hollywood studio. Great pains have been taken to show the artificialness of that "film," so we must accept the implications of this fusion, i.e., the irony of the general's ideals and authority as delineated by a camera and spotlight. Sergius is in command again—but of a Hollywood set. And Leo Andreyev, ex-revolutionary, embittered, is now a purveyor of Hollywood illusions. At the end Leo kneels in tribute to Sergius' artificial rebirth, to the man he fought against during the Revolution. By this time the validity and strength of these men's ideals have been ripped apart. The worlds of the flashback and the modern story collide; the barriers between them dissolve when the ghost images of the flashback populate the movie set—and this should be emphasized—off the set and behind the cameraman, illustrating the complete collapse of boundaries setting off the illusory from reality….

The system of power structures and merging realities in The Last Command is really that of Sternberg himself. His ego was always the strongest push behind any of his films. His style here is particularly well-equipped to observe the oscillating series of authority shifts behind the merging worlds in his film. Judgments made on men like Leo and Sergius should be applied to Sternberg as well, who personifies a combination of the two—general and film maker. The arrogance of these three people builds structures subject to collapse: world succeeds upon world, revolution upon revolution throughout the entirety of The Last Command. (p. 72)

The merging boundaries of the worlds in this film are … quite in keeping with the building and tearing down of sets for the film making process. The almost militaristic power structures Sternberg delineated in the film are those of Hollywood itself. Still, the art of film making often reflects a shifting, elusive authority which evokes the question, "Who's in charge here?" There are many answers in The Last Command, all of them proving ephemeral. But doubtless Sternberg knew all the time. (p. 73)

John Tibbetts, "Sternberg and 'The Last Command'," in Cinema Journal (© 1976, Society for Cinema Studies), Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 68-73.


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