The very first Academy Awards were in 1929 and the best actor prize went to German Emil Jannings. Recipients were told in advance back in those days and as Jannings was planning on going home to Germany, he asked if he could have it early. Three months early, in fact. The Academy obliged so he actually became the first person to receive an Oscar, ever. If you’re wondering why we’re telling you this then, it’s because the movie he won it for was the silent classic The Last Command, directed by the legendary Josef von Sternberg.
There’s a movie-within-a-movie and director Leo Andreyev (Powell) is looking for the perfect Russian to play a general in his latest extravaganza when he comes across a photo of Sergius Alexander (Jannings). He has no acting experience but he claims to be a former Russian general himself, not to mention cousin to Tsar Nicholas II. The revolution of ten years earlier may have killed Nicholas and his immediate family but it brought the now sorry figure of Alexander to Hollywood. Nobody believes this old man with a nervous tick is a real general except Andreyev but how does he know and why cast a non-actor? The movie then flashes back to Russia just before the revolution, when Alexander was a feared and respected general and Andreyev was a Bolshevik actor. Yes, they’ve met before. Alexander has Andreyev arrested but he takes his colleague Natalie Dabrova (Brent) as his lover, despite information that she is the more dangerous revolutionary.
To say anymore would be a shame because we’d hate to ruin the story on this one. Old it may be but not many have seen it nowadays and it’s a real gem. Let’s just say that while the bullying Alexander is set up as a villain and the revolutionaries the heroes, things get turned on their head more than once and our sympathies are rather cleverly thrown about. As we learn how the general got that tick and became a broken man.
Modern audiences might be familiar with silent fare such as Nosferatu (1922) or the even more contemporaneous Metropolis (1927) but, to be honest, The Last Command is superior to both. This is silent movies at their zenith just before the short but bumpy transition to sound. The story is intriguing, the direction tight and the wordless acting pitch-perfect. Jannings delivers a modern and harrowing performance, while slipping into brilliantly-judged melodrama for the climax. As for Evelyn Brent, she was very much von Sternberg’s go-to actress at the time but he was about to discover Marlene Dietrich and despite a decent transfer to talkies, Evelyn was soon overshadowed. So watch this and get her at her peak, when she was not only a great actress but also one of the foxiest women to grace the silver screen. Can we say that?
Special Features: Interview with critic Tony Rayns / Sternberg Till '29 (a video essay by scholar Tag Gallagher) / 32-page booklet featuring an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry / Two original reviews from 1928 / a 1929 profile of Jannings / archival images
THE LAST COMMAND (1928) / DIRECTOR: JOSEF VON STERNBERG / SCREENPLAY: JOHN F. GOODRICH, LAJOS BÍRÓ, JOSEF VON STERNBERG / STARRING: EMIL JANNINGS, EVELYN BRENT, WILLIAM POWELL / RELEASED: 16TH MAY