The Last Command
Emil Jannings won the first best actor Academy Award for his performance as a sympathetic tyrant: an exiled Russian general turned Hollywood extra who lands a role playing a version of his former tsarist self, bringing about his emotional downfall. Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command is a brilliantly realized silent melodrama and a witty send-up of the Hollywood machine, featuring virtuoso cinematography, grandly designed sets and effects, and rousing Russian Revolution sequences. Towering above it all is the passionate, heartbreaking Jannings, whose portrayal of a man losing his grip on reality is one for the history books.
Moving on through Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of their 3-disc box set, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, the second dual-layer disc presents The Last Command in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Criterion is using the same high-definition restoration sourced for their DVD edition, which was scanned from a 35mm duplicate negative.
Looking at the old DVD edition and then my review for it I see I felt the image for The Last Command was softer in comparison to Underworld, though I can’t see why I would have originally felt this: though there are some very soft and fuzzy parts (something I’d certainly expect for a film getting closer to 100 years in age) the overall image feels to be substantially sharper most of the time, and this ends up translating very well to the Blu-ray. The Blu’s presentation offers more detail in many shots, from the stitching on Emil Janning’s uniform/costume to the fine details found in long shots of the movie studio set in the present-day sequences, and this leads to some strong textures. Yes, again, there are shots that look out-of-focus or blurry, far more-so in comparison to the previous film, but I still think most of the film delivers in the detail department.
The film does feel to suffer from more source damage in comparison to Underworld, presenting more scratches. There are also other marks and fluctuations. It doesn’t look like any further restoration was done, though it’s admittedly hard to tell for sure and comparing a few sequences between the Blu-ray and the DVD didn’t show any differences. The improvement in definition is noticeable, though, with the image looking a bit more filmic in comparison. Film grain is rendered better, not as noisy or blocky at least, though it could be more fine tuned. I found contrast and grayscale to also look better here, and black levels manage to look nice.
In the end it’s a nice-looking presentation, again limited more by the source. Aspects of the restoration are a bit dated (like grain management) but there is still a noticeable improvement here.
Similar to Underworld, Criterion’s DVD for The Last Command presented two scores to accompany the film: a 2010 score recorded by Robert Israel, and a 2007 score by the Alloy Orchestra. Both are presented in lossless 2.0 PCM stereo.
Both, again, deliver clean and dynamic presentations, filling out the front sound-field nicely. They’re both recorded fairly recently (within the last 12 years) so unsurprisingly there are no issues around damage, distortion, or noise. Which one a viewer goes with, though, will ultimately come down yet again to personal preference. The Israel score is suiting, probably a bit more of the time period (at least in influence) while the Alloy Orchestra score gets a bit more experimental in places (and even creates a different mood). They both work, though, and they both sound great here.
The DVD box set only had a handful of supplements spread out over the 3 discs, though I was pleased with the material. The Blu-ray set appears to carry everything over.
Like Underworld, The Last Command only comes with one substantial extra, though it’s a pretty significant one, a visual essay by Tag Gallagher called Von Sternberg Till ‘29. Like the visual essay by Janet Bergstrom on the previous disc, Gallagher covers the director’s early life and then quickly moves to his first feature film, The Salvation Hunters, and his brief working relationship with Charlie Chaplin. From there Gallagher focuses on the films in this set, offering an analysis and breakdown of many sequences from the three films along with The Salvation Hunters—with clips from all—showing how von Sternberg had an early grasp on film language. He talks about how the director conveys emotions visually, talks about his framing, use of sets (including how the placement of items in the foreground affect the feel of a scene), light and shadow, and even gets into detail how cigarettes come into play in each of the films. Mixed in are plenty of photos and archival film footage, and Gallgher provides plenty of quotes from von Sternberg. As with all of Gallagher’s visual essays it’s an exceptional and intriguing one. The lack of much else may seem disappointing but this 35-minute piece does a solid job making up for the absence of other features on the disc.
As one would hope the Blu-ray does offer a noticeable improvement over the DVD’s presentation, the film would have just benefitted from an all new scan and restoration as aspects of the current master are a bit dated. Gallgher’s excellent essay also does a solid job examining the film’s in the set.