Josef von Sternberg, who directed “The Blue Angel” in 1930, is responsible for a number of excellent silent films, including “The Last Command (1928).” The Last Command stars Emil Jannings as a Russian emigre in 1920s Hollywood. As a general in the Czar’s regime, the General (Grand Duke Sergius Alexander) takes a job as an extra in a Hollywood war film. When the plot of the movie mimics the General’s own story, he recalls (in flashback) the depths of his last days in Russia as a Czarist commander under the siege of rebels.
In the Russian scenes, the General, a cousin of Czar Alexander, lives a life of luxury while the ragtag populace revolts against the nation. However, the story does not cast the General as a villain, but as a man caught up in history. The opening scenes on the studio lot make him look pathetic, with a twitch in his neck, ratty clothes and a haggard look on his face. When we see him in flashback in Russia, he looks regal in a military overcoat and a coterie of adjutants. He’s not an unfeeling tyrant, as shown in a scene where he admonishes a servant for trying on his fur-collared overcoat and smoking his cigarettes. The General lets him off with a warning and tells him there will be punishment next time.
William Powell does a wonderful job playing the director (Lev) of the studio film. When we first see him, he looks over a pile of photos and picks one out. He chooses the General’s photo, and turns it over, where a note says that the actor claims to be the cousin of Czar Alexander. The scene soon shifts to the chaotic crowd of extras waiting at the gate, where the General is shoved along window to window to collect his uniform, boots and hat. The Russian scenes make it clear that the General is also pushed aside by relentless history.
In the Russian scenes, Lev plays a theater director with rebel sympathies. He performs for the troops along with a well-known rebel, Natalie, played by Evelyn Brent. Natalie bewitches the General, and he allows her to tag along with him and his men instead of sending her to prison. Her conversations with him reveal his softer side, which interfere with her desire to eliminate him. But we’re not sure of her true motives towards the General until she reveals herself in a pivotal scene aboard a train.
As a studio extra, the General plays himself. In the dressing area, he pulls a cross-shaped medal out of his wallet. The other extras mock him and try to take it from him, but this is the talisman that represents his loss of Russia. He’s able to pull back all his dignity, mobility and pride to play his scene before the cameras. For Lev, a Russian emigre on the other side, he gains a measure of respect. The former enemies reach an accord through cinema.