The Last Command and The Act of Killing

We’ve gotten a lot of new movies already in 2018, but one of my favorites so far is a set of three silent films by Josef Von Sternberg. While these films are campus use only (DVD 14852 – 14854), they are truly worth watching and can be viewed by students in our screening room.

One of the films, The Last Command, has an interesting connection to a 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing. In The Last Command, an exiled Russian general turned Hollywood extra lands a role playing a version of his former czarist self, bringing about his emotional downfall. Most of the film covers his acts during the Russian Revolution, including a love affair with a revolutionist. In the film’s stunning conclusion, he encounters shadows from his past as he reenacts them, and is transported by them.

In The Act of Killing (HU DVD 12262), the filmmakers examine a country where death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes, challenging them to reenact their real-life mass-killings in the style of the American movies they love. Again, film making becomes a kind of question, and a way of interrogating the cruelties and injustices of the past.

These two films are both interesting examples of a very different kind of self-witnessing through performance. In a way, they echo community-based theater, including the focus on process in addition to final product. The act of creating is powerful: these films address the power of acting on an actor, even when acknowledged as an act. Both are highly recommended, especially for students of film and theater.

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