The Last Command (1928) Review

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.

The Last Laugh (1924) Review


The Last Laugh “Der Letzte Mann” or The Last Man (1924) Director: F.W. Murnau



What do you get when you combine the acting of Emil Jannings, the screenwriting of Carl Meyer, and the directing of F.W. Murnau? The result is a brilliant little tragic farce of silent cinema. Much like Murnau’s Sunrise, The Last Laugh takes an astonishingly simple story and transforms it into a classic. It is a wonderfully sardonic film. Despite having a somewhat absurd plot, this is clearly the work of a master auteur. Carl Meyer’s screenplay (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) is the most famous example of a Kammerspielfilm or a “chamber-drama” film.

The film follows the story of an unnamed doorman at the famous Atlantic Hotel. He is extremely well respected by his family and neighbors for his ‘prestigious’ position. The owner sees him sitting down to relax his muscles after lifting luggage and concludes that the doorman is getting too old for the job. He thus demotes the doorman to the position of washroom attendant. In a cruel twist of fate, the man now holds towels for wealthy men while they smoke big cigars.

The unnamed man goes to great lengths to hide his shameful new position from his family and friends, but soon his wife discovers his secret when she surprises him at work with lunch. His family disowns him. The man then descends into a pit of despair as he wanders back to the washroom at the Atlantic to fall asleep. The only person who is kind to the man is the night watchman who covers him with a coat for warmth.

Here, the film’s sole title card appears reading:

“Here the story should really end, for, in real life,

the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death”

However a sham comedic ending occurs wherein a newspaper reveals that the man has suddenly inherited a vast fortune from a Mexican millionaire named U.G. Monen, a patron whom he once cared for in the hotel washroom. Now very wealthy, the man returns to the hotel where he eats a large meal along with the night watchman and they celebrate their riches, handsomely tipping all the doormen on their way out to a carriage, while another man sits begging for money.

The film was the first of Murnau’s films for UFA Studios and everytthing about this movie was compelling to me, not least of which is Murnau’s unique use of the camera. In one scene, a camera is strapped to a man’s chest as he rides a bicycle, in another a camera is sent down a wire from a window to the street below. The first ever “dolly” was used for this film during shots through the hotel as Emil Jannings moved through it. It was entirely filmed at UFA Studios using large elaborate sets for the hotel. Murnau famously noted that the film was utterly absurd because “everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman.” At the time, a young Alfred Hitchcock was working at UFA Studios in Germany and was, no doubt, exposed to this film.


Emil Jannings starred in other projects of F.W. Murnau’s including as Mephistopheles in Faust and a number of Nazi propaganda films until his death in 1950 of liver cancer. When the Allies invaded Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar with him to justify his allegiance to the Allies. He won the first ever Oscar for Best Actor in 1929 for his role in The Way of the Flesh and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. His Hollywood career was short-lived after the advent of talkies because his thick German accent didn’t sit well with the general public in the U.S. and thus he returned to Europe.