The Last Command (1925) Director: Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg’s powerful film is notable for its star, Emil Jannings, who won the very first Academy Award for Best Actor – and deservedly so – for his unique performance. Additionally, William Powell was a star in the film (it is unusual to see him in a silent film, considering his wonderful performances in the 1930s in The Thin Man series and My Man Godfrey). Jannings was a popular German silent film star before making his way to Hollywood. In recent years, he has been criticized for support for the Nazi regime and its propaganda. When the Allies liberated Germany, he reportedly came carrying his Oscar statue to prove his allegiance, however he was not allowed back in the U.S. He died in Austria in 1947. He also stars in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh in 1924.
The plot is unusual. It tells of a poor Russian extra in Hollywood who has an odd head twitch. He is an older man called in to star in a Hollywood. Immediately the director, played by William Powell recognizes him. Now, the bulk of the film is a flashback to the days of Czarist Russia, wherein the main character, Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), is a powerful commander and cousin of the Czar of Russia. He publicly whips a young revolutionary across the face. The young man’s companion, however, falls in love with the commander and helps him escape from a train when Bolsheviks take it over. However, shortly after jumping off the train, he turns to watch in horror as the train falls from a collapsing bridge, killing everyone on board. This causes him to develop an unusual permanent head twitch.
Ten years later, he is in Hollywood and as it turns out the director recognizes the former Russian commander. He was the one who whipped him across the face in Russia years before. To humiliate him, he casts Alexander as a Russian general, and Alexander has a moment of confusion as he genuinely believes himself to be the Russian commander again, and as such delivers a stunning performance, before he promptly dies. The director, played by William Powell, remarks how Alexander was a great man. Thus concludes the film.
Later, Ernst Lubitsch went on to claim that the story for the film was based on a true story: a former Russian general fled Russia upon the eve of the revolution and moved to New York and opened a restaurant and later in Hollywood tried to work as an extra.
Who Was Josef von Sternberg?
He was born into a Jewish family in Vienna. He moved with his mother to Queens, New York, and fought in the US Army during World War I. After the war, he offered his services in editing, filming, cutting, or any other needs for film studios throughout the United States. He then started a career as a director and was involved in the establishment of United Artists. During his heights, he was sought after by the major film studios of the time: Paramount and MGM. The Last Command is his most famous film of the silent era, however in the 1930s he is best known for his films starring Marlene Dietrich, in movies like The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express, and the Scarlett Empress, among others (six films together in total). He continued to produce celebrated films until the early 1950s. He saw his career post-Dietrich as a string of mostly disappointments.
The Last Command is a good film, with memorable scenes including the emotional moment when the former commander, Alexander, watches the train come crashing off a bridge into the river below (a popular cinematic motif in cinematic history), and also the powerful performance he delivers as the Russian general at the close of the film.