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Film / The Last Command

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The Last Command is a 1928 film directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Emil Jannings, William Powell, and Evelyn Brent. A Hollywood film director, Leo Andreyev (Powell) is looking for suitable extras to put in his film about the Russian Revolution. He spots the headshot for one Sergius Alexander (Jannings), a man who claims to have been a Russian general, and decides to hire him. Sergius is a broken man, living in a tiny room and eking out a living by working as a film extra for $7.50 a day. And if that weren't bad enough, he has a persistent head twitch which he explains by saying "I had a great shock once!".

As Sergius puts on his makeup the film flashes back to 1917, pre-revolution. It turns out Sergius really was a general, and not only that, but also a Romanov Grand Duke and cousin to the Tsar. Military police in Sergius's army identify two actors, Leo Andreyev and his companion Natalie (Brent), as known subversives. Sergius has them brought in for questioning. After Leo insults him, Sergius has him thrown in jail, but Sergius decides to keep Natalie with him as a companion and mistress. Leo rots in a cell while Natalie is drawn against her will to the dynamic Sergius—but Red October soon turns everything upside down.


This film, coming on the heels of the very successful gangster flick Underworld, established von Sternberg as one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood, but he would soon go back to Germany to make The Blue Angel with Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in this film and The Way of All Flesh, but he soon had to go back to Germany as well due to his heavy accent. After The Blue Angel, Jannings would spend the rest of his career making movies for the Nazis. The Last Command also helped launch William Powell onto the Hollywood A-list. Of the six movies that Jannings made in Hollywood, this is the only one that has survived.



  • Antagonist in Mourning: Leo, who wanted to humiliate Sergius, feels regretful after Sergius collapses and dies.
    "He was more than a great actor—he was a great man."
  • Artistic License – History: The film seems to be conflating the February revolution (which toppled the Romanovs) and the October revolution (in which the Bolsheviks seized power). In the movie the Tsar's government is apparently directly replaced by the Bolsheviks, which did not happen in Real Life.
  • Best Served Cold: Leo tells Sergius that "I have waited ten years for this moment, Your Imperial Highness."
  • Break the Haughty: Sergius isn't a bad person per se, but he's definitely haughty, taking Natalie with him just because he can, and threatening to shoot his adjutant for stealing his cigarettes. He gets thoroughly broken.
  • Call-Back: Leo Andreyev inspects his army of film extras much like Nicholas II inspected real soldiers.
  • Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: After getting dressed up in his general's uniform again, put in a trench warfare set, and told to harangue his mutinous soldiers, Sergius snaps. Thinking he's back in 1917 and fighting the revolutionaries, he grabs the Imperial Russian flag and tells his men to charge forward to "victory". Then he collapses and dies.
  • Character Tics: Sergius constantly shakes his head in a "no" gesture. The movie eventually reveals that this happened after he watched Natalie's train plunge into a river.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Natalie, who has a hidden gun, can't bring herself to shoot Sergius. Sergius, who sees her gun without her noticing, sees how twitchy she is and gets her a cigarette.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Sergius jumps off train moments before a bridge suddenly collapses under it.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job / Impoverished Patrician: Going from Russian Grand Duke and army general, to poverty-stricken movie extra, is a pretty long fall.
  • Framing Device: The Show Within a Show, beginning and ending the movie, with its main part being Sergius's flashback.
  • Heroic BSoD: Sergius starts to slip into one as soon as the revolution happens and he is taken prisoner by the mob. Natalie's death makes it permanent.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Natalie, the flag-waving revolutionary, falls in love with Sergius and apparently makes peace with becoming The Mistress. After he's about to be hanged by a mob, she manages to manipulate the situation to get him put back on the train, and then later helps him escape.
  • Horrible Hollywood: Von Sternberg later explained that he "saw an opportunity to deal with the machinery of Hollywood and its callous treatment of the film extra." The scrum of extras lining up to get their costumes at the studio is called "the bread line of Hollywood". All in all, it seems a pretty bleak existence.
  • How We Got Here: After establishing that Sergius is a broken shell of a man living in poverty, the film jumps back ten years to show how things came to this point.
  • Humble Pie: Revolutionaries do this to Sergius, making him stoke the train to Petrograd.
  • Inspired by...: The life of Theodore Lodijensky, a real Tsarist Russian general who escaped to Hollywood and worked as an extra for a while, as well as opening a restaurant.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Sergius's adjutant collapses and dies instantly after getting shot.
  • The Last Title
  • Leitmotif: "God Save the Tsar", the Russian Empire's national anthem, used both as a part of the movie's sound track, and in-universe by Leo on the set.
  • The Mutiny: Leo is freed when his jailers revolt. Also, Sergius's adjutant turns on him with a vengeance at the moment of revolution.
  • Meaningful Echo: See Second Face Smoke.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Leo cradles Sergius after Sergius collapses.
  • Royal Blood: Sergius and the Tsar.
  • Royal Brat: The Tsar is depicted like this, "thinking the war is a parlor game", as Sergius put it, taking a division from the front line for a parade.
  • Second Face Smoke: First Sergius to the arrested Leo, than Leo to Sergius, both times as a sign of humiliation.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Sergius, as the result of his story revealed through the flashback.
  • Show Within a Show: Leo, formerly a real revolutionary, is now shooting a film about the Russian Revolution.
  • Spiteful Spit: After Sergius' train is stopped and he's captured by the mob, one of the revolutionaries spits vodka in his face.
  • Title Drop: "You've given your last command", says one of the soldiers in the Film Within a Film.