Lev Andreyev (William Powell) worked in the theatre in Russia, and was a revolutionary there about ten years ago before trying his luck in Hollywood where he has been very successful as a director. However, not every refugee from Europe has done quite so well, take the former Russian Army General and cousin of the Czar General Goldorucki (Emil Jannings) who as you can imagine did not emerge from the tumult of his home nation as anything like a success. He too went to Hollywood, and has hired himself out as a movie extra, scraping by on what that makes him in spite of the terrible shock of his past leaving him in a near-decrepit state. When Andreyev notices his photograph among the faces he's hoping to cast, he thinks he can use him…
Emil Jannings was the first actor in history to win an Academy Award, which makes him a good trivia question although maybe a little embarrassing to the Oscar committee ever since the rise of the Nazis in the nineteen-thirties that he fully supported, meaning the first ever Best Actor award went to a Nazi seeing as how vocally Jannings championed Adolf Hitler. If you are going to get along with The Last Command, you have to set that to one side and appreciate what was at the time regarded as a showcase for the world's foremost dramatic leading man, this was before his far right beliefs were widely known so there was no scandal in the twenties that marked his heyday on the international scene.
Besides, if you refuse to watch this because of Jannings, you would be missing out on the work of director Josef von Sternberg who here was moving into his phase of very well thought of work from this decade well into the thirties until his esteem began to decline. He was known as a harsh taskmaster but this was tolerated since his results looked so immaculate, which must have led to interesting exchanges on the sets of The Last Command seeing as how Jannings was not exactly known for being especially tolerant of those he worked with: when two egos clash, it can send a production well off the rails before the end. Fortunately that was not the case here, and the consequences were a highly prestigious effort.
You could tell that Hollywood was already far into its obsession with itself when a goodly proportion of the film was taken up with the ex-General wandering through his new job on Andreyev's Great War epic, getting his costume, putting his makeup on, suffering additional humiliation when his fellow extras pick on him for hanging on to his medal as given to him by the Czar which they lampoon him for, not to mention his post-traumatic stress which has made him shaky and almost dazed as he deports his way through what his life has become. You are obviously supposed to feel sorry for him, and there was a definite style to the piece that sympathised with the losing side of the Russian Revolution which indicated where the politics lay, that was, more to the right than the left.
Therefore when we had the lengthy flashback, most of the movie in the central section, to see what the General had been like we start off noting he was a strict disciplinarian who was responsible for many revolutionaries' deaths, which doesn't sound as if he's going to warm the cockles of your heart. He assuredly doesn't warm Andreyev's for they have indeed met before, when the General almost had him executed and though that didn't happen he did whip the artist, making it odd that his lady friend Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent, at the peak of a career that fell away dramatically within mere months afterwards) should fall for the General so thoroughly. Apparently, though she was intending to assassinate him, she quickly grows deeply moved by his patent love of his country (a love that fails to extend to most of the citizens lower down the social strata than he is), and an unlikely affair is struck up. This was drawn from true events, though how far it was fictionalised was debatable, so what you had were a series of striking images, a heavily ironic ending that made cathartic sense, and a romanticising of an era that was very far from romantic. Historically very interesting.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray has a restored print, the original score, a Tony Rayns interview on the film, a video essay on von Sternberg, and a 32-page booklet featuring an extract from the director's autobiography.]