When we first meet Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) we are told he is a bit-part actor with little experience. A Hollywood director however is intrigued by his head-shot and wants to cast him as a Russian army general in his latest war picture.
Sergius claims to have served as a general in Czarist Russia in 1917 during the revolution. Those around him are dubious and mock him. On his first day on set Sergius pulls out a medal given to him by the Czar in order to dress up his general costume. Another actor takes the medal from him and shows it off, accusing Sergius of stealing it. Someone else angrily tells him to stop twitching his head, which Sergius says was the result of a traumatic shock.
The movie is The Last Command (1928), a largely forgotten film, which easily ranks as one of the greatest films of the silent era, and audiences will have an opportunity to see it on the big screen at the Music Box Theatre as part of their silent film series Wednesday, February 22.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the movie is a continuation of a theme familiar to Jannings, who had previously starred in the German drama, The Last Laugh (1924), the downfall of a proud man. Together Von Sternberg and Jannings would collaborate on one more picture (as director and actor), The Blue Angel (1930), which featured a star-making performance by Marlene Dietrich, who played a cabaret singer who ruins a respected professor.
In The Last Command a woman is again responsible for his doomed future, as the movie flashes back 10 years earlier to Sergius as a general. He is informed of two revolutionist spies, posing as actors, entertaining the troops. One of the spies is Natalie (Evelyn Brent), whose beauty fascinates Sergius. He devises a plan to keep her for himself by arresting her companion, fellow spy, Leo Andreyev (William Powell). In the last act of humiliation, he turns out to be the director that hires Sergius. How the tables have turned.
The two most memorable sequences in the film involve humiliation as Von Sternberg and Jannings go over the top to demonstrate Sergius’ fall from grace. The first sequence has Sergius with the other actors in line, aggressively shoving and pushing one another, as they collect their costumes. The man in front of Sergius keeps yelling at him to stop pushing. Sergius is now like one of many who get pushed around in life. He has no authority to demand better treatment. The second sequence shows the revolutionist capturing him as they get their cruel revenge, spitting on him and stealing his clothes. Even the woman he thought loved him now laughs at him as other men grab and kiss her in front of him.
It has been suggested only Emil Jannings could have played this role, for which he won a best actor Academy Award, at the first award ceremony. Jannings, a popular actor in Germany, mirrored the life of his most famous characters, as he too met his own downfall, as he remained in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, acting in several propaganda movies, which hurt his reputation after the war. His performance here however takes the audience through a range of emotions from pity to appreciation.
Everything comes to its dramatic conclusion on the first day of shooting on the movie set as Leo and Sergius will confront each other face to face as Sergius is once again a general. The memories flood back to both men. If there is any room for criticism of the movie it would involve this last sequence and the last line of the movie, which doesn’t earn the emotional impact it was meant to have, as one brave man pays tribute to another.
The Last Command also makes a political commentary and most directly deals with the concept of patriotism. Who are the true patriots, the ones fighting in the Czar’s army or the revolutionist? There are slight jabs at the nature of war itself, as presented in the movie’s inter-titles, and a touch of life imitates art.
After this movie Von Sternberg would only go on to better things due to his collaboration with Dietrich; the two would work on a total of seven films together. Of the seven films, Sternberg would be nominated twice for best director at the Academy Awards, for Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), cementing his importance among filmmakers of the era.
The Last Command is a grand spectacle (pay attention to the vast number of extras used in scenes) that deserves to be seen on a big screen. It has epic filmmaking with acting to match it.
The movie will be accompanied by a live musical score played by Dennis Scott, the Music Box house organist. Screening is at 7:30pm Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N Southport. Please click here to visit their website for more information including ticket prices.