15 de agosto de 2011

The Last Command (1928)
Josef von Sternberg

"(...) The Last Command contains echoes of Jannings’s famous role in The Last Laugh. The exceptional importance assumed by the uniform in that German classic is carried over into the American film. When, in The Last Laugh, Jannings’s nameless character is demoted from his elevated position as a doorman to washroom attendant, he takes off his uniform and hands it over in an excruciating gesture of dejection, as if relinquishing his identity along with the garment. In The Last Command, we encounter the reverse: standing in a line with other extras, Jannings picks up a uniform to regain his former identity as a Russian general. What he surrenders in the German film he recoups in the American one. Employees in the costume department hurtle the bundled uniform to Jannings unceremoniously, indifferent to what it symbolizes. Without his uniform, Jannings looks as wretched in the American film as he does in the earlier German one. In both movies, the uniform changes the person: it bestows status, glamour, identity. The Last Command can also be read as an American counterpoint to the German film: it concludes with the death of the protagonist, while the German film offers a satiric Hollywood ending. The only intertitle of The Last Laugh states: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” With this, Murnau reveals the ending of a melodrama to be a mere construct: it is up to the director to end the story as he wishes.

The same level of reflection about the act of constructing filmic fiction occurs in The Last Command. Toward the end of the film, we witness the creation of a scene—the director calls for various elements, one after another: “Music, please—the Russian National Anthem!” “Wind machine!” “Lights!” And finally, “Camera!” Jannings is directed to inspire his troops to follow him and fight a final battle. The uniform has transformed him into his former chauvinist character (to the sound of the national anthem), and he rapidly loses his grip on “reality.” Past becomes present and acting becomes life. Frequent crosscuts to the running camera and the director, who monitors the scene with increasing apprehension, keep the viewer distanced from the pathos of the general reliving his traumatic past. A revolutionary soldier attacks the general: “You’ve given your last command! A new day is here! Down with your Russia!” Jannings strikes him down, grabbing the flag and climbing out of the trench. Hallucinatory images of the dead from his former Russia appear as superimposed ghostly figures—signifying (in the tradition of German expressionist cinema) that the general is going crazy. As his gestures become more imperious and threatening, reinforced by an extreme low-angle camera and high-contrast lighting, he exclaims: “The command is forward—to victory. Long Live Russia!” The reenactment of his past proves to be fatal: he dies in the arms of the director, his former adversary.

The Last Command can be seen, in part, as a melodrama about the Russian Revolution, with political conflicts translated into private tensions between two men over a woman whose death allows their reconciliation. But von Sternberg’s framing of this story turns the film into something else altogether, taking us out of the melodrama to explore the nature of acting and pretense. The last line of the movie states: “He was more than a great actor—he was a great man.” This distinction points to the director’s ambivalent attitude about the role of actors in the make-believe world of cinema. (...)"

Anton Kaes
(texto completo aqui)

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