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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.


  • All Part of the Show: Everyone on set except for Leo thinks that Sergius is just really getting into character. Instead, it appears he's on the verge of a mental breakdown.
  • 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."
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: The director wanted to show just how bad the Hollywood system could treat people and some humor comes from seeing all the extras struggle and then wait around to be told what to do.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The engineer on the train joins in the debauchery and passes out from too much liquor. This causes the train to fall off the bridge and into the river below.
  • 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.
  • Fatal Flaw: Sergius' is shown that he can't change with the times. The Russia he knew is almost dead and gone in a very literal sense, but he can't shake his loyalty to it, and this ends up being his undoing.
  • Framing Device: The Show Within a Show, beginning and ending the movie, with its main part being Sergius's flashback.
  • The Hero Dies: The general, hallucinating he's once again the general at the front lines in Russia, makes a heroic speech about how Russia must prevail, and collapses from a heart attack. Leo cradles him and tells him they won as he dies.
  • 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.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Leo's assistant on set claims he knows everything about Russia after making twenty pictures, but manages to get a major costume detail wrong that both Sergius tries to and Leo eventually corrects him on.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The revolutionaries are portrayed as very nasty people and every single one of them with no survivors (unfortunately including Natalie) end up at the bottom of the river when the train plunges off the tracks.
  • 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.
  • Let Them Die Happy: After Sergius collapses at the end of his scene, and Leo cradles him, Sergius, who's been hallucinating he's back at the front lines in Russia (see The Hero Dies above), asks if he won. Leo tells him yes, and Sergius dies.
  • Meaningful Echo: See Second-Face Smoke. Also, Leo's use of calling Sergius "Your Imperial Highness" is done with sarcasm to humiliate him. But the final time he says it, it's with respect as Sergius lies dying.
  • The Mutiny: Leo is freed when his jailers revolt. Also, Sergius's adjutant turns on him with a vengeance at the moment the revolution breaks out.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: At first it appears Serguis' loyalty lies with the Tsar, but eventually, it's revealed his truly loyalty is to the idea of Russia itself that he clings to.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Leo cradles Sergius after Sergius collapses. A helpful cameraman even shines a light to highlight them.
  • The Quiet One: After the revolutionaries pull him off the train, Sergius doesn't speak until the very end of the film.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: One of Sergius' underlings, who he had threatened to shoot just for putting on his coat, yanks the coat off and joins the revolutionaries. When he protests over one of them taking Natalie, saying "The woman goes with the coat", the revolutionary takes out a gun and shoots him without blinking.
  • 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. Sergius is then told he should make the troops charge when the Tsar visits the front line, purely for drama's sake. The general finally has enough of this nonsense and refuses to allow hundreds of men to die purely to humor their ruler.
  • 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.