The Last Command (1928)

William Powell was apparently so delighted by the experience of being directed by Josef von Sternberg on this film that he had it written into his contract that he’d never have to work on a Sternberg production ever again. As for Sternberg, he probably wished he could’ve done the same with his star, Emil Jannings; the noted German actor had come to Hollywood (apparently this is the only film he made there that still exists) and, until talkies wiped him out there on account of his accent, apparently proved to be a bit of a nightmare. This is another one of those films where Jannings plays a kind of elevated individual brought rather brutally down in the world; cf. also The Last Laugh, Variety, and The Blue Angel (just to name the ones I’ve seen myself). Here he’s Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin to the star and military leader of Russia during wartime, reduced a decade later to scrounging for work as an actor in Hollywood. The film is, in fact, based on a true story, though obviously fictionalised; about two-thirds of the film is a flashback to the war showing Jannings’ downfall at the hands of revolutionaries, the rest depicts his rather bleak experience on set. This part of the film turns on a frankly titanic coincidence, that the director of the film is not only another Russian emigré, he’s a former revolutionary ill-treated by the erstwhile duke who spots his reference photo and hires him as an act of belated revenge (because the duke’s penurious broken existence wasn’t enough) by making him effectively play his former self in fiction. This requires some swallowing, of course, and in lesser hands would probably be unpalatable, but Sternberg was wise to let the Russian story dominate to make the Hollywood episode more resonant. The Last Command was really a Jannings star vehicle than a directorial vehicle, and Sternberg’s visuals are attractive but not as overtly so as in Underworld. Great stuff, though; I find Jannings’ downfall in this a lot easier to believe in than that of his perhaps more celebrated hotel doorman in The Last Laugh.

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