Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.
Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).