From Vulnerability to Suspicion
The Last Command takes a multifaceted view of the events, institutions, and individuals surrounding the revolution. Imprisoning Andreyev, Alexander brings Dabrova to the new military headquarters. The ensuing narrative events open up the drama to greater questions about the difference between duty to a military and/or governmental structure and love for one’s land. Both Dabrova and Alexander argue that they love Russia, but that love has placed them on opposing sides of the power structure. While Alexander cannot “turn into” a revolutionary, he acknowledges the silliness of recalling and arranging the troops at headquarters for the Czar’s inspection. Again linking plot to film style, von Sternberg stages the Czar’s visit as a big, quite impressive show that the General must endure because it is his duty. When Alexander is asked to stage an offensive for the benefit of the Czar, who will be visiting the front, he refuses, saying he will not sacrifice troops for the “entertainment” of the Czar.
Von Sternberg uses these events, rooted in historical reality, to bring forth a star-crossed love story between the General and his actress, who is still at the headquarters. The scene in which they express mutual affection is full of mixed and false signals. The temptation scene of Underworld includes a degree of danger because the threat of a crime boss’s wrath forms a cloud over two would-be lovers. In The Last Command, however, the sense of danger is made even more intense by the presence of Dabrova’s gun.
Once Alexander sees the gun, which she has attempted to hide, the stakes of their interaction increase to a boiling point. Jannings undergoes a masterful transition from vulnerability to suspicion in a single shot. From here, von Sternberg continues a technique from Underworld, in which objects escalate with meaning and import throughout a scene or sequence. Alexander is wary of the tea Dabrova offers. She is distrustful of the cigarettes he offers. All of this is a prelude for the proper introduction of the gun to the scene. Of the many films Quentin Tarantino referenced in Inglorious Basterds, perhaps nothing had a greater influence than scenes such as this from The Last Command.
In a mordant stroke of humor that Tarantino would appreciate, the eventuality of the revolution is summed up in a single title card, which tells us that “A group of obscure people” decides that Russia will become a republic. The second act’s most thrilling action occurs after the revolutionaries stop Alexander’s train and he’s threatened with having to “stoke our train to Petrograd.” As imperiled General and avowed revolutionary, Jannings and Brent keep the audience guessing, and von Sternberg treats us to some stunning reversals of behavior. The Last Command, like Underworld, concerns among other things the virtue of loyalty, and the characters’ commitments grow ever deeper even as the reality around them deteriorates.
The third act of The Last Command shifts back to present day action. We are now fully aware of how, and why, the balance of power has shifted between Andreyev, once an imprisoned revolutionary and now a powerful director, and Alexander, a once-great General, now a frail actor, playing a commanding general. Once the film within the film begins to shoot, the infirm Alexander begins to have visions of his former glory. Von Sternberg shows us his visions with superimpositions, but even without those, Jannings’ performance makes clear the cycle of emotions playing out in the general’s head and heart. Sunset Boulevard would, in its own inimitable way, later satirize Hollywood as the source of madding dreams, but The Last Command precedes and one-ups even Billy Wilder’s masterpiece as a film about identity lost, regained, and artificialized for the camera.
As a welcome change of pace from the forceful drama of The Last Command, the final film in this collection is its brief, charming confection. The Docks of New York is a freewheeling work that seems limited in scope compared to the other two ambitious works collected here. However, joined again by set designer Dreier and with cinematographer Harold Rosson, von Sternberg meticulously realizes the dockside environment inhabited by the film’s hard-luck characters.
The Docks of New York
George Bancroft is stoker Bill Roberts, and his one night ashore begins unexpectedly, as good time girl Mae (Betty Compson) attempts suicide by jumping in the water. He rescues her, but after doing the right thing, he faces a series of obstacles that prevent him from following through on “meeting” her. Other characters in and around the Sandbar, a dockside hangout, come in and out of the picture, but the two most significant supporting characters are a dysfunctional husband and wife who initially take care of Mae. The woman, Lou (Olga Baclanova), seems to be the bitter sort of person Mae might become someday.
The Sandbar is a lively spot full of fun and carousing. On any other break, Bill would probably stay in the middle of the action until dawn. Yet his persistence to reach Mae and get to know her sets up their relationship as the foremost dramatic development of the film.
When Bill and Mae finally reunite in a bedroom, it becomes apparent that they have both lived rough and tumble lives. The audience has seen the dirty, fiery domain of stoker Bill, but beyond the Sandbar, there is no specific context for Mae’s lifestyle. Dialogue on title cards helps us to infer that she has been with several men. Bill is not at all thrown by Mae’s perception of herself as damaged. As with Underworld and The Last Command, The Docks of New York also contains a wooing scene. Indeed, von Sternberg reserves his sweetest courtship for the unlikeliest characters. Bill wins her heart with lines such as, “I’ve sailed the seven seas, but I never saw a craft as trim as you.”
The conflict in The Docks of New York is found in the limited options available to these characters, separately and together. The film is especially frank about the circumstances of their short romance, and when the subject of marriage enters the picture, it carries many meanings. Certainly, it is a shot at redemption for Mae, but only if Bill sticks around. In the world of the story (which reflects its time and place), there is no value to becoming “an honest woman” if the arrangement is only temporary. Since Bill is a likeable rogue, it is with mixed feelings that the viewer reacts to the prospect of him settling down.
Ultimately, dire circumstances involving violence and the threat of the law are what it takes to strengthen the bond of these characters. An important key to the story’s resolution is Mae’s introduction to the film, which is shot expressionistically, in the reflection of the water. Although much of the film is dedicated to the boisterous and loud environment that defines a rough dockside life, The Docks of New York is just as much a fairy tale, uniting the girl who leaps into the water and the man who climbs up from the furnace to rescue her.
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg arrives on DVD with several special features exclusive to this edition. The DVDs are packaged in individual, numbered cases and accompanied by a 96-page book that features essays by Luc Sante (on The Docks of New York), Geoffrey O’Brien (on Underworld) and Anton Kaes (on The Last Command). Also included in the book is Hecht’s story for Underworld, an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and notes on the film scores written by their composers: Robert Israel, Ken Winokur/Alloy Orchestra, and Joanna Seaton and Donald Sosin.
The Underworld disc includes a visual essay by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom. On The Last Command, there is another visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher. The Docks of New York features a Swedish television interview from 1968 with von Sternberg. In the interview, he discusses his approach to filmmaking and pokes some fun at the seriousness with which his films are analyzed by saying, “The place for messages is a telegram.”
Finally, perhaps the most welcome additions to this release are Robert Israel’s brilliant symphonic scores for all of the films. Although the discs also include inventive scores by Alloy Orchestra (Underworld and The Last Command) and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (The Docks of New York), none of them matches the subtlety and emotion of Israel’s work. His own brand of musical storytelling is a perfect fit for von Sternberg’s silent masterpieces.