Insolent Enigma/Arrogant Auteur: Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg

The Last Command

Josef von Sternberg

Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor for The Last Command, one of the most powerful of Hollywood's self-portraits. Jannings plays an aristocratic Russian general who barely escapes the Bolsheviks in 1917 and ends up in Los Angeles, living on a pittance as a film extra. A Russian expat director (William Powell) recognizes the shabby actor as the imperious czarist oppressor who once tortured and jailed him when he was a young Soviet revolutionary, and stole his girlfriend in the bargain. Partly out of revenge, the director hires the pathetic old man for a role in his new film, playing (what else?) a czarist general during the Russian Revolution. Von Sternberg encouraged Jannings' histrionics in a role that anticipated the actor's later turn as the mortified professor in The Blue Angel. Ingeniously constructed and overflowing in visual richness, The Last Command is "the first Sternberg masterpiece … the sheer sophistication of Sternberg's visuals makes nearly all current releases look old-fashioned" (Tony Rayns).

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