The Last Command (1925) Director: Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command showcases the apex of Emil Jannings, the controversial silent film actor won the first Academy Award for Best Actor – and deservedly so – for his unique performance in this film. Additionally, William Powell was a featured star (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). The Last Command is a horrifying character study of a former commander who is given one last chance to return to his former glory through the magic of movies.
A poor Russian extra with an odd head twitch comes to Hollywood. He is an older man called in to star in a movie. Immediately, the director (played by William Powell) recognizes him. Now, the bulk of the film transforms into a flashback hearkening to the days of Czarist Russia, wherein our protagonist, Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), was once a powerful commander and cousin of the Czar of Russia. We watch him publicly whip 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 the Bolsheviks take over. However, shortly after jumping off the train, he turns to watch in horror as the train falls from a collapsing bridge, killing everyone onboard. This causes him to develop an unusual 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 genuine moment of confusion as he relapses back to believing himself to be that Russian commander again, and as such, he delivers a stunning performance, one complete he promptly dies. The director, played by William Powell, remarks on how Alexander was a great man. Thus concludes the film.
Later, Ernst Lubitsch went on to claim that the story for this film was based on a partially 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.