Underworld (1927) and The Last Command (1928)

4 11 2010

These are the two earliest von Sternberg films I’ve seen (the only other silent of his I’ve seen is The Docks of New York, my personal favorite) and with that in mind, they both represent very interesting progressions in the filmmaker’s career. The first, Underworld is more of an impressive formal exercise than anything else, but it does deserve some credit for anticipating one of the most popular genres in all of Hollywood, even though it was most certainly not the first gangster movie. As it is, it provides very few conventions for the gangster films of the 1930s, but that’s part of its charm. The latter, though, is much closer to being a full-on masterpiece. Emil Jannings’ performance is exaggerated little (both on screen and in film history, calling it “subtle” is a bit too much) but there’s something so painfully heartbreaking and that’s before the film even becomes a redemption story for and against its protagonist.

In Underworld, George Bancroft plays “Bull” Weed,  an extremely successful gangster, who likens himself to Robin Hood. “No one helps me, I help them” he explains when Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) offers some sort of repayment for all the help he has received from Weed. Weed has taken Royce from being the janitor of the local bar to something, at least superficially, much more respectable. Royce, however, is something of a self-loathing individual, who tends to think in a more philosophical way than anyone else in the film. Of course, Royce becomes infatuated with Weed’s sidekick female, Feathers.

If it’s not obvious by now, the underworld depicted here is one that is indeed gritty and realistic, but like Docks of New York later, there is a romanticism that underscores all the poverty and shady dealings taking place. It might be simply be the visual splendor of von Sternberg’s world, but there’s definitely a sort of appreciation for the unsavory reality being presented. This might be the single element that most resembles the gangster films of the 1930s. Unlike many of said films, this doesn’t really have a central premise – a big problem or heist or something. It just sort of flows around with Weed falling further into a depression and Royce and Feathers falling further in love. It’s odd, we feel for all three. There’s no real “bad guy” (except for the faceless police and Buck Mulligan character) to help improve the tension. It’s more of just a sad movie that happens to have gangsters.

If Underworld is setting up the foundations of von Sternberg’s stylistic tendencies and emotional motifs, then The Last Command is close to being a perfect second model. We’re thrown into the contemporary Hollywood scene and we follow a hopeless extra, who, as we quickly learn, was a affluent Tsarist officer in Russia barely a decade earlier. Even with the political weight that immediately arises from depicting pre-Revolution Russia, von Sternberg avoids all the traps and steers his film away from providing a ideological statement that is specific to the time. Sergeus Alexander  fully embraces Tsarist Russia, but he is not a bad guy. In fact, there is an immediate sadness when we realize his current occupation is one that is so pathetic it seems to dissolve the past.

Alexander captures revolutionary Leo Andreyev, while keeping his female accomplice, Natacha for his own personal enjoyment. Natacha’s intention is to kill Alexander, but she gets soft when she sees his loyalty and dedication to the country. They remain together, but are ultimately torn apart following a violent protest, which transforms into a full scale riot. All of this occurs in a flashback that is triggered towards the very beginning as Alexander waits for another job as an extra. It’s difficult to explain, but there is something so troubling and hell, just goddamn sad about the way von Sternberg juggles Alexander’s chaotic, exciting, and meaningful past with his painfully mundane present.

 

Adding insult to injury, the film in question’s director is, of course, Leo Andreyev. Who, in a picture perfect set up for redemption, decides to cast Alexander as a general in his war film. I don’t want to say more about what happens from here, but I’ll say that the film ultimately manages to collide all the feelings it was built on into one truly heartbreaking finale. The Docks of New York probably remains my favorite, if only for its visual excellence, but this is a worthy runner-up. Calling a movie “emotionally unique” seems really vague, but this is the sort of experience that makes film-viewing worthwhile. It’s a different form of resonance and it is more than enough to validate Josef von Sternberg’s excellence. His first true masterpiece, and from what I’ve seen, his most Sternberg-ian work.

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