528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

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Gregory
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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#151 Post by Gregory » Tue Jul 08, 2014 6:12 pm

JAP wrote:
zedz wrote:It sounds like we might be waiting some time for the eventual repackage! (And there's no way it will look this good.)
Yes, but... it'll probably be in nice, shiny, dent-free, standard height plastic! :-"
What's "standard height plastic"?

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#152 Post by JAP » Tue Jul 08, 2014 7:38 pm

Gregory wrote:
JAP wrote:Yes, but... it'll probably be in nice, shiny, dent-free, standard height plastic! :-"
What's "standard height plastic"?
As opposed to "variable height cardboard"? :)

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#153 Post by Jakamarak » Tue Jul 15, 2014 11:25 pm

Criterion's website explicitly says that the sternberg silents set is not out of print, just that they cannot sell it, and they include a link to amazon, it's the same disclaimer they have posted for Chasing Amy.
So does this sound like a licensing issue?

I ordered it from Amazon on July 4th when it said it "usually ships in 7-12 days." The original estimate was tomorrow or Thursday, but it hasn't shipped yet. Now Amazon says "usually ships in 9-11 days."

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#154 Post by Drucker » Tue Jul 15, 2014 11:28 pm

No. It's a they probably ran out of copies and want to re-press it in different packaging they haven't settled on.

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#155 Post by TMDaines » Wed Jul 16, 2014 5:16 am

I wouldn't mind this being repackaged in a plastic case. This is one set I have gone through four or five copies of and never had one arrive not banged up.

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Charles
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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#156 Post by Charles » Wed Jul 23, 2014 10:30 am

Just received the first note of doom from Amazon, telling me the projected delivery date has been moved out:
"New Delivery Estimate: August 06, 2014 - August 07, 2014"

I have to say a two-day window is kind of odd. It would be nice to think they actually see some stock coming in and are being that precise accordingly. But as a card carrying pessimist, I doubt it.

It just pisses me off that this dropped off the face of the earth with no warning whatever.

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Drucker
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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#157 Post by Drucker » Wed Jul 23, 2014 10:47 am

The title has been available for years. It is currently unavailable, and will be coming back in print. If you've waited until an announcement that it's unavailable to place your order, that sounds like your fault.

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#158 Post by DeprongMori » Thu Sep 11, 2014 1:38 am

Having just discovered Emil Jannings via Eureka's amazing "Der letzte Mann" (I know, late to the party), I snapped up a used copy of this Sternberg set in mint condition at a shop for $45. I see used copies are starting at $196 on Amazon these days (yikes! And 'new' starting at over $300) so I'm feeling pretty good.

Even if they re-issue the Sternberg set, I suspect it will not be in the excellent digi-pak packaging with the extensive booklet. Now it can keep company with the original packaging on my "Pandora's Box".

(BTW, seriously, if you haven't seen Murnau's "Der letzte Mann", do yourself a favor and check it out. It's one of the most visually audacious silent films I've seen since "Metropolis". I was just bowled over.)

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Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

#159 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Nov 09, 2015 6:30 am

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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#160 Post by bottled spider » Tue Nov 10, 2015 3:12 am

I had weird viewing experience with The Last Command. I started to watch it while sleepy and distracted, stopped, then returned to it the next day, and thereby mistook the entire, extended flashback for the film under production -- the film within the film. I thought we were meant to understand this film within the film to be a lousy melodrama, performed by ill-paid, ill-treated actors under a cynical production system. Yet we are drawn into this ostensibly bad melodrama because it is surreptitiously (so to speak) very good. At the same time, we remain cognizant that we are watching merely a film within the film, the whole point being that we had earlier witnessed this poor man humiliated by his fellow actors, and now see him poignantly transformed and reinvigorated playing the part of a powerful man. I even imagined he looked petrified with stage fright when he first came on, before loosening up and warming to the role. And I thought we were meant to wonder all this time in what ways this ludicrous melodrama might parallel his own Russian past...

... and then up pops the intertitle declaring something to the effect of "and that's how a great general Russian general came to be an extra on a Hollywood set".

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Re: Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

#161 Post by Sloper » Thu Nov 12, 2015 10:41 am

This film feels very similar to The Salvation Hunters in terms of its attitude towards its characters and some of the points it makes about them. The title, Underworld, identifies these people as ‘children of the mud’, to use the earlier film’s language, and here they are also nocturnal creatures – as opposed to ‘children of the sun’. The lovely opening title describes the city as though it were uninhabited, comparing the buildings to the ancient cave-dwellings of long-extinct peoples. Of course, later on, we see the bustle of the modern city brilliantly evoked in the backgrounds of the jewellery store scenes, but the intertitle is referring to the city-at-night inhabited by the protagonists. This is a dark, low, marginal world, ‘under’ in the same sense as the mud dredged up from the bay in The Salvation Hunters. Rolls Royce is a solitary figure staggering along the street, and Bull Weed snatches him up not just because he’s a witness to the robbery, but also because he recognises a kindred spirit, a fellow mud-dweller. In the few daytime scenes, we get glimpses of a more ordinary-looking world beyond, but for the most part the film grounds us firmly in its nightmarish ‘Dreamland’ vision of the city, beautifully realised by Von Sternberg, Hans Dreier et al.

However, the film is also interested in the theme of aspiration. The dredge in Von Sternberg’s first film reminded the characters of their lowly, pond-scum status, but it also gave them hope of being uplifted towards something better. I find the ending of that film more ambiguous than the final intertitle suggests: this loving family are heading towards, and gazing up at, the sun, but visually they still seem ‘owned’ by the dark earth (maybe the picture quality of the version that’s up on YouTube is responsible for this), and their material circumstances remain pretty grim. In Underworld there’s a similar ambivalence as to whether any kind of redemption is really available for these people, as well as some interesting distinctions between the characters’ capacities for self-betterment.

Their names provide a useful way in here. The names Bull Weed and Feathers come from Ben Hecht’s story, but they take on more meaning in Von Sternberg’s film. This is partly because most of the secondary characters – who also had vivid nicknames in Hecht’s story – have been excised or anonymised, so there’s more of a focus on the central figures. More importantly, Von Sternberg visually underlines the associations of these two names. Hecht describes Bull Weed as a wild animal on the loose at one point, but otherwise doesn’t make a big deal about his name – indeed he often refers to him as ‘the Killer’. Von Sternberg casts George Bancroft in the role, and has him deploy a set of movements and especially facial expressions that emphasise his ‘bull-like’ nature. The way he rears up in a gathering rage when he hears that Feathers is being assaulted by Buck Mulligan, and particularly his trademark bleating (mooing?) laugh, are the most obvious examples. And in the ball scene, the camera pays lots of attention to that huge model bull behind Bull Weed’s table. The bull wears a crown to signify the character’s power and authority (and, in that scene, his status as Feathers’ ‘king’ and master), but also to hint at the absurdity of someone so bestial and stupid wielding this kind of authority.

Bull is powerful, but he’s also an animal, and also also a ‘weed’, waiting to be weeded out by higher powers. When Bull sees the sign telling him ‘The City is Yours’, Rolls Royce points out that he’s 2000 years too late: his way of doing things is out of step with the modern era, and his days are numbered. The film begins with an extreme close-up on a clock face, which then remains super-imposed over the dolly-out from the clock tower: the tower is an imposing structure, threatening Bull Weed as he tries to maintain control over the world below; the insistent emphasis on the clock-face makes it clear that time, in particular, is his enemy, both in the sense that it won’t take long for the authorities to catch up with him, and in the sense that the modern world has outgrown him. (And it’s interesting that the film begins at 2 a.m., the same fateful hour Bull waits for later on in his prison cell – not the time of his execution as such, but the time when he will know whether he’s being rescued or not.)

Here is what Hecht tells us about Feathers’ name:

‘[Bull] had bought her hats with plumes in them and when she laughed in front of the looking glass he had called her Feathers.’ (Criterion booklet, p. 50)

That’s all. Von Sternberg has her wearing feathers all over, which in a literal sense shows the extent of Bull Weed’s generosity towards her, but figuratively underlines something about her inherent nature: she is like a bird. She moves her head like one, at times, especially when she first sees Rolls Royce in his new apartment. Her bird-like nature, and the contrast between ‘feathers’ and ‘weeds’, tell us that she is in a sense above Bull, a superior creature.

In Hecht’s story, the third main character is called ‘the Weasel’, a useful but still lowly assistant to the bull. Von Sternberg picks up on the character’s sophistication and learning and calls him Rolls Royce. He out-classes Bull and is associated with modernity and speed. What makes him so interesting is that he simultaneously remains the ‘lowest’ of the three characters, in that we first see him as a homeless drunk. Bull looks down at him from the steps of the bank, and literally picks him up off the street. He decides to take him under his wing (so to speak) when this drunkard stands up to assert that he may be a bum, but is not a squealer: ‘I am a Rolls Royce for silence’. Now, Bull is looking up at his new friend, and the low angle seems to give Rolls Royce a new dignity. The character turns out to be a Rolls Royce in other respects besides his discretion. As Bull remarks to Feathers, reforming this character and setting him up in a new home cost him a thousand dollars – but Rolls Royce ‘looks like a million’, and actually reads the books in the bookcase that Bull regards as a mere ornament.

Later on, when Bull thinks he has been betrayed, he will see an apparition of Rolls Royce and Feathers kissing inside this bookcase, and will smash the glass that separates him from what those books represent. The irony of this love triangle is that Bull, having dredged both Feathers and Rolls Royce out of the gutter, is then out-classed by them. In Hecht’s story, Feathers is (wrongly) reputed to be having an affair with Piano Joe, and there is no sense that she or the Weasel consider acting on their feelings for each other until after Bull Weed’s death, when they ride off into the sunset (on a train) together. In the film, there is some truth to the rumour of infidelity, and now the ‘other man’ is Rolls Royce. When Bull forgives his friends at the end, this is partly because he realises they have been trying to save him, but also, unlike in Hecht’s version, because he has been ‘all wrong’ up until now. These two are in love, and they deserve each other; they’re too good to carry on being ‘his’ anymore, so he sacrifices himself for them. This foreshadows Von Sternberg’s later preoccupation with masochistic men destroying themselves for women who are at once idolised, idealised, demonised, treacherous, and yet perfect (and even salvific in some way).

How interesting that he doesn’t show us Feathers and Rolls Royce going off together at the end, but focuses on the betrayed/destroyed/redeemed Bull. There’s no space here for an unambiguously happy couple – and I think this is true of the other Von Sternberg films I can remember – and indeed Rolls Royce also sort of fits the model of the man in thrall to the dominant woman. For one thing, I suppose his name identifies him as a vehicle to be ridden. Then of course there’s the scene where he first meets Feathers. She stands at the top of the stairs, pulling up her stockings (shades of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, perhaps) while he sweeps the floor down below: a thread (or ‘feather’) drops from her dress and the camera follows it lovingly, fetishisingly, until it drifts past Rolls Royce’s face and he catches it in his hand. (Again, foreshadowing Lola dropping her knickers onto Professor Rath?) Then he looks up at her, marvelling, a rather short cigarette butt poking out of his mouth. The moment establishes him as someone who picks up her trash, and falls in love with her while doing it.

A little later, at the table, he stands up to be introduced to her, but she cuts him down immediately: ‘When did you last have the body washed and polished?’ Referring to a car, this remark relates to the outer ‘body’ displayed to the rest of the world, but because Feathers is talking to a person the line evokes an image of his naked, un-washed body. Like other Von Sternberg men, he is humiliated by being (figuratively) stripped and then sullied. But like those other men, he seems pleased as well as humiliated. This is how their relationship starts – not in the cuter, more conventional, less convincing love scene in the apartment later on, although I like the way that Rolls Royce’s first move there is to fondle Feathers’ costume.

To go back to the bar-room scene, notice how Buck Mulligan, having been brushed off by Feathers, decides to impress her by throwing a ten-dollar note into the spittoon and forcing Rolls Royce to pick it up. Ostensibly this episode is supposed to demonstrate Buck’s impotence and Rolls Royce’s innate dignity and class, and then Bull’s protective authority over Rolls Royce. However, subliminally it also echoes Rolls Royce’s first encounter with Feathers, where he stooped to pick up the (to him, infinitely precious) object she had discarded. I think the distinction between the two moments underlines his state of subjection to Feathers.

Later, his frustrated love for her will drive him back into alcoholism. I find that intertitle very moving where, pleading with him a second time to stop drinking, she says, ‘Please – don’t!’ But then he responds by saying that he will drink because she is Bull Weed’s girl, not his. The italicisation of Bull’s name echoes that of ‘Please’ in the previous intertitle: the emotions prompted by her inaccessibility trump those that prompt her to want the best for him, so that his relationship with her is still defined in the terms established by the earlier scene in the Dreamland Cafe. Compare this with Shanghai Express, where the hero struggles to reconcile Lily’s selfless prayer for his well-being with her abandonment of him for another man. On the surface, both situations are simply resolved: Bull Weed is done away with, and Lily was trying to save her lover’s eyesight. Looked at from another angle, though, the Clive Brook character still seems to end up in a subjugated, humiliated position in both endings: in Underworld he’s been shot and has to be more or less carried away by Feathers (quite different from his heroic endeavours at the end of Hecht’s story), and in Shanghai Express he has to put total faith in Lily without even knowing the truth about her seeming betrayal. (Also, her embrace of him in the final shot, with her hands fiddling about behind his back, is I think suggestive of control and even entrapment. Which is what he wants anyway.)

A few other moments in Underworld I really loved:

Obviously, the bit where Buck punches Rolls Royce and the camera tips suddenly backwards. The crowd in the upper gallery burst into terrified movement just when the camera settles on them. We only see this for a split-second, but it adds another layer of dynamism to the shot – on the horizontal as well as the vertical plane. The film makes us feel the impact of Buck’s sadistic violence, whereas it tends to distance us from the impact of Bull’s.

Speaking of which, the jewellery store heist (where we don’t see Bull’s face) is terrific. I also liked the subsequent shot where the camera is inside the (now empty) store, looking out of the window at the crowds and police officers bustling on the pavement. Then the inspector walks into shot and finds the flower. As well as just being a beautifully effective way to shoot this small moment, it also contributes to an effect that runs through the film: there is a busy world outside, but we remain separated from it, in the more marginal, less inhabited space. Compare the earlier sequence when Bull and Feathers were looking into the jewellery store window while the crowds and cars went past in the background – we sense that this couple is as alienated from the latter as they are from the expensive objects behind the glass, caught between the two worlds, but also that Bull will bring destruction upon himself, as the judge later says, to enable Feathers to realise her aspirations. Note also that both of Bull’s robberies – of the bank and the jewellery store – are initiated by the smashing of glass, and again that he will smash the glass in the bookcase later on, always raging against the barriers that exclude him from the higher levels of society.

The whole ball sequence is magnificent, especially that montage of delirious faces that vividly brings the preceding intertitle to life. The party streamers are used brilliantly here. Like the netting in the bars in The Docks of New York and The Blue Angel, or like the candle-light during the wedding sequence in The Scarlet Empress, the streamers are both festive and oppressive, they both attract and entrap, making everything more beautiful but also weighing everything down. Bull Weed (and the model bull behind him) get buried in streamers; Feathers has to wade through them; and there’s a fantastic shot where we see the now drunk Rolls Royce, out of focus, while the party streamers (in focus) dangle tauntingly in the foreground, reminiscent perhaps of the thread that dropped from Feathers’ clothing earlier on. In the montage of party-goers’ faces, they all seemed to blur and meld together into a tangled mess of debauchery, and now Rolls Royce – who had seemed, along with Feathers, to stand apart from the others a minute ago – is starting to blur into them too, obscured by the anarchic decorations that now fill the room.

And we mustn’t forget the adorable kitten. It seems a bit sentimental at first glance, but actually Bancroft plays it cool enough for it to work. He protects and provides for the vulnerable animal, but almost unthinkingly – a nice touch that succinctly reveals his character.

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Drucker
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Re: Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

#162 Post by Drucker » Sat Nov 14, 2015 8:07 pm

Sloper wrote:Speaking of which, the jewellery store heist (where we don’t see Bull’s face) is terrific. I also liked the subsequent shot where the camera is inside the (now empty) store, looking out of the window at the crowds and police officers bustling on the pavement. Then the inspector walks into shot and finds the flower. As well as just being a beautifully effective way to shoot this small moment, it also contributes to an effect that runs through the film: there is a busy world outside, but we remain separated from it, in the more marginal, less inhabited space. Compare the earlier sequence when Bull and Feathers were looking into the jewellery store window while the crowds and cars went past in the background – we sense that this couple is as alienated from the latter as they are from the expensive objects behind the glass, caught between the two worlds, but also that Bull will bring destruction upon himself, as the judge later says, to enable Feathers to realise her aspirations. Note also that both of Bull’s robberies – of the bank and the jewellery store – are initiated by the smashing of glass, and again that he will smash the glass in the bookcase later on, always raging against the barriers that exclude him from the higher levels of society.
Posting after Sloper in film club just means finding a point he hasn't made and trying to make it. This is absolutely a high point of the film, Sloper. Expertly done, and like so much else of the film, it's amazing how much of his aesthetic and ideas are ingrained into the filmmaking style he would go on to perfect in the next decade. But it's already showing up early.

My key takeaway from this film, however, and what really struck me, is the central importance between the relationship of Bull and Rolls. While obviously Rolls Royce and Feathers become romantically linked, and perhaps Bull's true purpose, in some sense, was to put them together, the relationship that is at the center of the film, to me, was between Bull and Rolls. I've only seen each Sternberg I've seen once at most, but from what I remember, his films are filled with one person exerting power in a relationship, and the other person eventually up-ending it, and taking power. Ultimately, the alpha in each relationship becomes undone by the person they take under their wing. It happens between the army general and Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, it happens in Morocco with Gary Cooper (and the other soldier, the one she ends up running after), it happens with Unrat in The Blue Angel, and even a bit in Blonde Venus and The Devil is A Woman. Here, while it is Bull in the alpha role, taking Rolls under his wing, it eventually undoes him. As with all the other films listed, there are significant variations in whether the alpha was treated justly, I believe, and whether there is some degree of reconciliation (I believe there IS reconciliation and forgiveness in Underworld and Blonde Venus), but at some level, that's how I see the dominant relationships in each film play out.

Like with so many of the Dietrich-male counterpart relationships, demeanors between the two characters shift. While Dietrich is scared at the beginning of The Scarlet Empress, her would-be suitor (the general), is confident. Eventually, Dietrich becomes confident and powerful. Likewise, in Underworld, while Bull is stark raving mad at Rolls at various scenes, Rolls keeps his cool generally, acting as an emotional counterpoint to Bull. This plays out perfectly in the scene where the invites to the Valentine's Day ball happen. Bull gets home, right after Rolls and Feathers realize they have a thing for each other, and Rolls, hearing the invite, glances at Feathers, then back at Bull, in a perfectly shot and acted scene. But the power, again, is within the relationship of the two men. Another power shift, this time in regards to who has won the hand of Feathers.

I found this relationship the most fascinating part of the film. Bancroft is absolutely electric, and while I love his role in Stagecoach, he's truly a star here. While Von Sternberg is still learning to create the art he would perfect, the jewelry store robbery is a perfectly shot scene. So is the chase of the flower person. When Bull busts into his room and the gun goes off at the same time, so that we meet Bull at the door in a cloud of gunsmoke, it's an absolutely perfect shot. And the scene in the bar when everyone clears out early on, the editing is absolutely superb. A wonderful debut by Von Sternberg, and clearly a sign of things to come.

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Sloper
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Re: Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

#163 Post by Sloper » Sat Nov 21, 2015 1:56 pm

Drucker wrote:My key takeaway from this film, however, and what really struck me, is the central importance between the relationship of Bull and Rolls. While obviously Rolls Royce and Feathers become romantically linked, and perhaps Bull's true purpose, in some sense, was to put them together, the relationship that is at the center of the film, to me, was between Bull and Rolls. I've only seen each Sternberg I've seen once at most, but from what I remember, his films are filled with one person exerting power in a relationship, and the other person eventually up-ending it, and taking power. Ultimately, the alpha in each relationship becomes undone by the person they take under their wing. It happens between the army general and Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, it happens in Morocco with Gary Cooper (and the other soldier, the one she ends up running after), it happens with Unrat in The Blue Angel, and even a bit in Blonde Venus and The Devil is A Woman. Here, while it is Bull in the alpha role, taking Rolls under his wing, it eventually undoes him. As with all the other films listed, there are significant variations in whether the alpha was treated justly, I believe, and whether there is some degree of reconciliation (I believe there IS reconciliation and forgiveness in Underworld and Blonde Venus), but at some level, that's how I see the dominant relationships in each film play out.
I was hoping to re-watch the films and respond properly to this, but time is not on my side this week - so I'll just say you make an excellent point about the relationships between men here, and I agree that these relationships sometimes seem to be more central to the films, or more interesting, than the more overtly centralised man/woman relationships. The homosocial bonds in these films are often very conflicted: comradeship mingles with rivalry, respect with contempt, sympathy with schadenfreude. But I like the way you're also hinting at a blurring of the distinctions between the same-sex and different-sex relationships.

Underworld reminds me quite a lot of The Glass Key - I've only seen the 1942 film of the latter, and haven't read the book, but I know it was published in 1930. I realise Sternberg's film didn't invent the idea of the love triangle, but it feels like there is some significant common ground here between the ways in which the triangle is configured. And obviously there's Miller's Crossing as well. Perhaps this is a more common trope than I realise?

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Re: Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

#164 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Nov 22, 2015 1:27 pm

Thanks to all for the wonderful comments on this movie. I don't have anything useful to add, but I really appreciate the few (but valuable) contributions you made. ;-)

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Mr Sausage
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The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

#165 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Apr 16, 2018 6:34 am

DISCUSSION ENDS MONDAY, April 30th.

Members have a two week period in which to discuss the film before it's moved to its dedicated thread in The Criterion Collection subforum. Please read the Rules and Procedures.

This thread is not spoiler free. This is a discussion thread; you should expect plot points of the individual films under discussion to be discussed openly. See: spoiler rules.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I encourage members to submit questions, either those designed to elicit discussion and point out interesting things to keep an eye on, or just something you want answered. This will be extremely helpful in getting discussion started. Starting is always the hardest part, all the more so if it's unguided. Questions can be submitted to me via PM.

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Re: The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

#166 Post by Sloper » Thu Apr 19, 2018 8:23 am

To some extent, I sympathise with Michael Kerpan’s preference for The Docks of New York. Visually and emotionally, that’s a far richer film – every shot is beautiful, and every scene invested with just the right amount of pathos. The same cannot be said, I think, about The Last Command, which has a few dull moments here and there.

However, I’m more fond of this film because of its mind-boggling layers of irony and perversity, and because, on top of all that, it still manages to be genuinely heart-breaking. There’s almost too much to take in here, too much to make sense of, yet the film nonetheless feels coherent and profound – it has a strong emotional effect on me, even if (unlike in Docks) it’s not easy to say what that effect is, or why it happens. (This might seem like a strange comparison, but in this respect the film reminds me a lot of Miller’s Crossing. Anyway...)

I’ll start by looking at the central narrative, then go back to the framing sequences. The flashback section of The Last Command might sound at first like a hackneyed, melodramatic romance – aristocratic Russian general falls in love with a beautiful revolutionary – but it ends up being a classic tale of Sternbergian sadomasochistic infatuation. It helps that the lovers aren’t played by John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but by Emil Jannings and Evelyn Brent. Jannings, as usual, displays his miraculous talent for embodying contradictory states without seeming inconsistent: he is authoritative and charismatic, while also being grotesque, weak and prone to humiliation. Evelyn Brent is icy and powerful: when Jannings is first alone with her, he starts by looking at her boots, then works his way up to the scornful, defiant look she casts down at him (he is sitting, she standing). To look at her from head to toe would have seemed more like objectifying and belittling her, but instead she seems to tower above him. She has more going on behind her eyes than Marlene Dietrich in the later films; she always looks as though she is thinking and calculating, weighing her emotions and her responsibilities, figuring out how to play this relationship with her captor/lover.

There’s always an ambiguity in how these two feel about each other. He coerces her into accompanying him, and seems to put her on a pedestal, and to be trying to impress her with his refusal to put soldiers in danger (does this contradict his earlier withdrawal of men from the front, when Natalie wasn’t watching, or is he acting out of real conviction, and this is the line he won’t cross?). But he also really seems to like making her happy. If the pearls initially seem like a rather sleazy gesture, opening the door to make his officers fall through it comes across as a more innocent – indeed gleefully childlike – attempt to make her laugh.

Like his wry comments about his idiotic cousin, the Tsar, or his handling of the subordinate who keeps wearing his coat and smoking his cigarettes (‘If he does it again, remove the coat and shoot the contents’), this moment of humour complicates our impression of Sergius’ self-importance. The doorman in The Last Laugh invested much of his identity in his uniform and his job, but he was also more than his uniform, a great man rather than simply an ‘important’ one. Sergius is not quite as sympathetic, but even when he whips Leo’s face, we understand that this is more than a tyrannical fit of pique. He truly loves his country, he takes his responsibilities as a general seriously, and he grieves over the stupid waste of life entailed by the Tsar’s poor leadership. Leo’s contempt for him as an ‘armchair general’ is misplaced, as Leo himself will realise at the very end of the film.

So he’s a complex person, and his appropriation of Natalie – despite the troubling power dynamic – is not easy to judge. Take the scene where he goes to her room and sees the half-hidden pistol. He doesn’t take the gun away, he doesn’t lose his cool, he just goes to get her one of her cigarettes. Why does he turn his back to her? Because he knows she won’t kill him, arrogantly believing that he has won her heart; or because, as he says, he would gladly die for the sake of his country, and because part of him sympathises with the revolutionary spirit that drives her to endanger herself in this way, and because (like so many of Sternberg’s men) he would quite enjoy being destroyed by the woman he loves? There’s sadism in his behaviour here, as well as masochism: like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, he wants her to shoot him, but he also wants to taunt her with her inability to shoot him. At the end of the scene, she is his ‘prisoner of war and prisoner of love’, and they are both willing slaves to each other’s desires.

The fact that their feelings are expressed in terms of their shared patriotism, despite their being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, adds an extra frisson to the sexual roleplay going on here, but also helps to clarify what the film, as a whole, is really about. As in Docks of New York, the story takes place in a world where most people don’t really care about anything, where life, emotions, individuals and values are all held very cheaply. The Tsar, the other generals, and the subordinates, are time-pleasing fools; Leo, the allegedly principled revolutionary, doesn’t understand Sergius’ motives or character, and will end up being an autocratic sadist in Hollywood; and the other revolutionaries, like their oppressors, come across as a brutal, mindless mob. Sergius and Natalie are drawn together because they both really care about something – their country – and about someone – each other. But my point is that it’s not as simple or sentimental as that sounds, because they’re fighting for their country on opposite sides, and because their love for each other is expressed through sadomasochistic power games.

This is what makes the climax of the central sequence so powerful. When Natalie gets off the train and joins the revolutionaries, we – like Sergius – can’t be totally sure that she isn’t betraying him, and even when it becomes clear that she is trying to save his life (her giving the pearls back is a nice way of affirming that this was a heartfelt gift on his part, not a crass piece of sexual blackmail, though I guess you could also see it as an emasculating, feminising action on her part), it sort of seems fitting that their relationship is consummated by her making love to another man in front of him, telling Sergius she loves him by telling another man she loves him, humiliating Sergius and herself at the same time. When the train then plunges into the icy lake, it almost doesn’t feel like a shock, but rather like the natural end-point of this love affair. He lets her sacrifice herself, jumps off the train, and leaves her to die a terrible death; she, by dying in front of him, condemns him to spend his remaining ten years in a state of incessant post-traumatic stress, forever re-living the moment of the train crash, denied any sense of closure until his orgasmic, patriotic death on the film set.

The head-shaking gesture is a useful entry point for looking at the framing sequences. Of course it’s a desperate expression of denial, the stage of grief Sergius becomes trapped in – an ironic, impotent echo of his former omnipotence, where he could control events with minimal gestures and commands. Now he wants to order the train crash not to happen, or not to have happened, but instead it is always happening, in his mind. Because of the prevailing cynicism of the world around Sergius and Natalie, I think this gesture also conveys a sense of disillusionment and disbelief. Everything in Sergius’ world – his superiors, his underlings, the war, the revolution – is so stupid and false, and Natalie’s ridiculous demise is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There’s something bathetic about the way the train just smashes through the side of the bridge and falls, face first, through the ice. It’s senseless, like everything else.

And so of course this great man of great feelings ends up in Hollywood, constantly shaking his head at the absurdity and artifice of his surroundings, being belittled and yelled at by small-minded men for whom his convictions, achievements and experiences are of no significance at all – except as something to be exploited, or to laugh at. We learn all this during the opening few minutes, meaning that when we go back in time to see Sergius in his full glory, that glory seems tinged with irony, transient and insubstantial. However, we also have some sense of the indomitable spirit, the man of substance, underneath this grandstanding tyrant, because we’ve seen him precariously climb onto a chair to pluck his medal off a prop-bayonet, and because in his fallen state he doesn’t try to go on exercising the power he knows he has lost. One of the poignant things about his arrest at the hands of the revolutionaries is that, from the moment the resentful underling steals his coat, he sinks into a state of passive despair: he knows when he’s beaten, and so must have always known (unlike the doorman in The Last Laugh) how easily his authority could be lost. When the assistant director puts another medal on the wrong side of his jacket, Sergius quietly moves it, politely explains why, and then meekly accepts that he won’t get his way on this point. Life is stupid and there’s nothing he can do about it, so he goes on shaking his head. And although he has a moment of indignation on seeing who his director will be on this picture – and tellingly, his head stops shaking at this moment – he still accepts orders from him.

What happens at the end between Sergius and Leo is not entirely convincing psychologically. I don’t see why, after what he suffered at the general’s hands in the old days, and given how little he knows about him, Leo would suddenly decide that this is ‘not just a great actor, but a great man’, simply because the old guy gets carried away by the imaginary battle. Leo formerly despised Sergius for his supposed lack of courage, and I suppose the flag-waving frenzy at the end, and the fact that Sergius clearly believes himself to be in a real battle for a few minutes, proves Leo wrong. Also, Leo notices his assistant director’s mistake with the medal, and we’ve seen his display of contempt for the fawning yes-men who surround him, all trying to light his cigarette. Perhaps, while making this scathing anti-war film about Russian soldiers dying wastefully in battle thanks to the hypocrisy of their generals, he is also becoming painfully aware of how silly and superficial his life has become, in contrast to his wild, idealistic struggles during the revolution. Sergius, as well as being his mortal enemy, is associated with that former time, and now inspires a grudging respect, and even some nostalgia for Leo’s lost homeland. His sadistic delight in lording it over his one-time persecutor also betrays an insecurity, a need to assert his dominance over a man who once mastered and humiliated him in front of a woman, and therefore proves that Leo had always felt – and feels again now – inferior to this ‘great man’.

Importantly, though, the film makes it clear that it is not the general’s status as a general, or his power to give orders, that makes him great. For Leo as for Natalie, it is Sergius’ patriotism, and the profound beliefs and emotions from which this patriotism stems, that is so impressive. As in the earlier Jannings film (whose original title was The Last Man), it’s as if we’re being shown the last moments of a dying breed, the death of the last person who really cared about anything. In that wonderful final dolly shot, Sergius, draped in the Russian flag, lies in state in an island of light, on a piece of fake ‘Russia’ that he doggedly believed to be real, as it (and he) gets swallowed up by the surrounding Hollywood apparatus (all of which is obscured in the shadows), and by the final fade to black.

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

#167 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Apr 19, 2018 11:40 am

Loved your comment, sloper -- but it clarifies to me why I like Docks so much more. Namely, so much LESS goes on in it. There is too much story in Last Command for me to totally surrender to it.

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Rsdio
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Re: 528-531 Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

#168 Post by Rsdio » Wed May 02, 2018 8:08 am

I watched the MoC Blu-ray of this last night without any knowledge of it being chosen for the film club so to come on here looking for discussion and find such a fantastic recent post was a real treat. Although I don't think I have much to say that wasn't already said there, far better than I could've said it.

I absolutely loved how much this film played with my sympathies and having slept on it I still haven't really been able to put it in any sort of order. There's such a glorious amount of contradiction to all of it that it feels impossible to find any sort of solid ground. I had the same sort of dissonance at Leo describing Sergius as a 'great man' as Sloper did, yet somehow this also seemed like a completely natural way for things to end. Even the characters don't seem to quite know how they feel about themselves and each other.

At the time I felt I was being brilliantly manipulated but in the (entertainingly bitchy) excerpt from Sternbergs autobiography included in the booklet he makes it sound as though at least some of it was more down to his inability to control Jannings.. Whilst also suggesting that he was intentionally vague with his instructions in order to create the possibility of the unexpected. With his general tone it's hard to know how much to believe but again, it felt fitting that reading about the intent from the guy who wrote and directed the thing only muddied the waters further.

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