The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.

Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.

Directed by Michael William Powell:

Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.

Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:

A. Kaes for Criterion:

Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

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