* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich & Beyond)
So the first film in the Josef von Sternberg series presented by the Brattle and Goethe-Institut doesn't feature Marlene Dietrich; it's an interesting silent and, as a bonus, casts William Powell (who would later go on to much success in the talkies, especially with the Thin Man movies) in a supporting role. It is the story of a proud man reduced to poverty for being on the losing side of a war. A just war, perhaps - Emil Jannings's Grand Duke Sergius Alexander had been a general in the Czar's army during the Russian Revolution - but that doesn't make the general an evil man, nor does it make those who fought against him good.
I unfortunately arrived a bit late; when I got there Sergius was arriving at a Hollywood studio, a quivering old man playing the part of a general in a silent movie. As he dons his uniform, his mind reaches back ten years, to when he was the cousin of the Czar and leader of his armies. He was an arrogant and selfish man, one who took his place in life for granted. When Lev Andreyev (Powell), a theater director, and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), a beautiful revolutionary, attempt to pass through his lines, he has them locked up, though the beauty gets a far more gilded cage than the director.
The relationship between Sergius and Natalie is an interesting one. At first, he comes off as a monster, holding her as if she's some sort of private plaything. And yet, when she gets a glimpse of him defying the Czar to avoid needless bloodshed, the way she looks at him changes; there's a possibility for redemption and a kind of nobility there, though there's not much opportunity to tease it out before the Revolution catches up with them.
That's a great silent-movie scene; the acting had been fairly restrained for a silent, but at this point they start playing to the balconies, with the revolutionaries cackling maniacally, looking positively demonic as they give the Czarists their comeuppance. Natalie seems to transform into a different person until a moment when she can cast a gaze at the general with no-one looking. It's odd to describe something in a slient movie as being a quiet moment, but that's what you have - the rest of the screen is doing the visual equivelent of making a lot of noise, and up to that moment Ms. Brent's face had been a part of that, but suddenly her stillness makes for a sharp contrast.
The final twenty minutes or so of the movie are back in Hollywood, and are another interesting set of subjects - the idea of Hollywood and the movies recreating history, even recent history (an assistant director instructs Sergius on how to wear his uniform, saying they'd made twenty Russian pictures and knew what they were talking about), and the idea that by the time it's possible to take revenge on someone, they've often been ground down far enough that there's no personal satisfaction in it. Jannings's performance is a little over the top here; his shaking seems exaggerated. And maybe the director's turnaround seems a little sudden; where Natalie had ample time to re-evaluate her opinion of Sergius, Powell's character only encounters him that day. It seems like a rushed finale to anotherwise extremely well-paced film.
Sadly, this movie is not yet available (or announced) on DVD; the studios have yet to figure out a way to effectively market their silent films (Fox's Sunrise is a mail-away exclusive; Universal used Death Takes A Holiday as an extra on the Meet Joe Black DVD).