Emil Jannings in The Last Command (1928)


(director: Josef von Sternberg; screenwriters: John F. Goodrich/story by Lajos Biro; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: William Shea; music: Robert Israel; cast: Emil Jannings (General Dolgorucki/Grand Duke Sergius Alexander), Evelyn Brent (Natascha Dobrowa), William Powell (Leo Andreiev), Nocholas Soussanin (Adjutant), Michael Vigaroff (Serge, the valet), Fritz Feld (A revolutionist), Jack Raymond (Assistant director); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating:NR; producers: Joseph Bachman/Jesse Lasky/Adolph Zukor; Paramount; 1928-silent)

“Brilliant silent.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Josef von Sternberg (“The Blue Angel”/”The Docks of New York”/”Underworld”) directs this brilliant silent that tells about the exiled 1917 czaristGeneral Dolgorucki (Emil Jannings, German silent screen star), who is stripped of his arrogance and working in 1927 for peanuts as a Hollywood extra. The impoverished General, living in a shabby rooming house, lands a movie gig to ironically play himself as a general, as cast by a Russian-emigre Hollywood director, Leo Andreiev (William Powell) who was a revolutionist posing as an actor back in the day and was whipped by this same general, the czar’s cousin, for telling him “It doesn’t require courage to send others to battle and death.” Leo was then sent to prison.

It opens with Leo Andreiev, now an established imperious Hollywood director, recognizing his former enemy from actor casting photos and out of vengeance he chooses the frail old defeated man to play the part of a czarist general leading a charge against the mob during the revolution in 1917. While unceremoniously given his uniform by the studio, with a bunch of other extras showing him no respect, the General goes into a long flashback of how it was during the Russian Revolution and his affair with the dangerous revolutionist actress Natascha (Evelyn Brent), and how she saved his life from a mob beating. Watching Natascha die when her train went off the bridge tracks into a river, left him permanently palsied. Returning from the flashback, the general is pumped-up to re-enact that last scene with full vigor as he was during his glory days of power and after passionately capturing the moment it becomes too much for him and he dies giving his last command, in his same Russian uniform, for a movie, as the director reassures him his Russia won, when he asks for the winner before taking his last breath.

The film has a great performance by Jannings, Sternberg’s impressive visuals and a superb story by Lajos Biro and script by John F. Goodrich. It’s also grandly stylized, as the silent blows one away with its sophisticated film-making, its keen sense of satire and gripping story-telling.