The Last Command (1928)

The Last Command (1928), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The framing story opens in Hollywood. A director, surrounded by his flunkies, is flipping through photos looking for a Russian face. He stops at an older bearded man. On the back of the photo: "Claims to have been a general for the Czar".

With steely intensity: "Call him in. Give him a general's uniform".

The old man appears with a mob of extras the next day. He is quiet and infirm, with a head tremor. He has brought his own medal, which he claims was given to him by the Czar.

Flash back to just a few years earlier in Russia. The man really is a general, hearty and vigorous, cousin to the Czar and head of his armies. We see the director again, now an actor and revolutionary. In an interview the general whips the man and sends him to prison, but keeps his lady friend, also a revolutionary.

She fits into his entourage, but is torn in her loyalties. She should kill him, but face to face violence is different than revolutionary theory.

The Revolution is unstoppable and the General is seized by the mob. How can he survive?

Back to Hollywood, ten years later. The director is making a film about the Revolution and has found both his now beaten down General, and an opportunity for revenge.

A remarkable tale told in an efficient 85 minutes. The craft of the late silent period continues to amaze me. Norma Desmond was right in Sunset Blvd. (1950): "We didn't need words, we had faces then". All the leads communicate so much with such slight changes of expression, their quiet movements and postures.

Our leads:


Photographed by Bert Glennon.

Available on DVD from Criterion. Silent film, fairly soft image, some source damage.

Two new sound tracks: Robert Israel and the Alloy Orchestra.