The legendary Emil Jannings was the first winner of the best actor Oscar, at the 1927–28 Academy Awards. He earned the prize for two silent films he starred in those years: Victor Fleming’s now-lost melodrama The Way of All Flesh and Josef von Sternberg’s thrilling The Last Command, a multilayered, self-reflexive drama about Sergius Alexander, a czarist general exiled from Russia after the revolution who ends up working in Hollywood as a movie extra. With these performances, Jannings, who had left Germany in 1926 for a contract with Paramount Pictures, forever left his mark on Hollywood, although his career there was short-lived—once talkies took over, his accent made screen acting in America all but impossible for him. (He would go on to star in Nazi propaganda films back in Germany, which forever tainted his image.)
Filmgoers in Detroit can see this truly charismatic actor’s staggering, theatrical performance in The Last Command on October 7, at the Detroit Film Theatre, in a screening with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra (who contributed a score to Criterion’s release of the film). While Sternberg has every visual detail in this exquisitely crafted film firmly in hand, Jannings compels the viewer’s attention with the slightest gestures or glance, whether he’s embodying the shell-shocked present-day Sergius or the confident, tyrannical general in flashback. You can see the latter below.