March 22, 2018
The Last Command (1928)
Grade: 76/100

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Stars: Emil Jannings, William Powell, Evelyn Brent

What it's about. Emil Jannings is the general in charge of the entire Russia Army during World War I. He is also the cousin of the Tsar. Jannings encounters two Bolshevik lovers who despise him (William Powell and Evelyn Brent), and pose as actors to infiltrate the Army staff and sabotage the war effort.

Jannings is on to them, and imprisons Powell. But he becomes smitten with Brent, and she becomes his mistress. Because it is a movie, she falls in love with the middle-aged and unromantic Jannings, due to his stirring patriotism. Meanwhile, the resourceful Powell leads a prison revolt and escapes.

During the Russian Revolution, the rebels capture Jannings and force him to work as a slave laborer pending trial. Brent risks her life to help him escape. Independent of the other, Powell and Jannings flee Russia for Hollywood. Powell becomes a powerful director, while the now humbled and jittery Jannings merely ekes out a living as an extra. Powell is tasked for a war movie set in Russia, and casts actors from photographs. Powell recognizes Jannings and hires him to play the general, savoring the irony of their role reversal: "The same coat, the same uniform, the same man. Only the times have changed."

How others will see it. The Last Command is best known for Emil Janning's Oscar-winning performance. He was the first person to receive an Oscar, since he had to depart for his home country of Germany prior to the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1928. The movie was also nominated in the Best Story category, and was an important stepping-stone in the career of future megastar William Powell. The movie was the high point in the career of lovely Evelyn Brent, who found work in many talkies but most were of lesser quality.

The Last Command was named to the National Film Registry in 2006, confirming its continued influence. Today at, has a feeble 2,680 user votes, although this is high number for a 1928 film. The user rating is lofty at 8.0 out of 10, but women over 45 only give it 5.5, presumably not caring for the film's unromantic lead and downer ending. User reviewers praise Jannings' performance, though the highly regarded thespian of the day is mostly forgotten now, and when remembered at all it is for a similar mighty-have-fallen role in The Blue Angel (1930).

How I felt about it. Sure, Jannings is good, but the real genius here is director von Sternberg. He was apparently difficult to work with, but he certainly made a star out of Marlene Dietrich, working together on The Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, The Devil Is a Woman and Shanghai Express. Dietrich's bad-girl act was mastered under von Sternberg's direction.