Emil Jannings won the first-ever best actor Oscar for his tremendous performance as an initially anonymous extra who is cast as a tsarist general in a Hollywood movie about the Bolshevik Revolution. To the authentic-looking costume he is given to wear, however, the man brings his own medal; it was given to him by his cousin, the Tsar. A long flashback to 1917 reveals that the protagonist was Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, the Commanding General of the Russian Armies, and that the director who has hired him, Lev Andreyev (William Powell, at his most concentrated), was a “revolutionist” whom he had imprisoned after the detainee scoffed, “It doesn’t take courage to send other men to battle and death.” Principally, Josef von Sternberg’s dark, engrossing film, written by John F. Goodrich from a story by Sternberg and Lajos Biró, and with cunning titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz, considers the haughtiness of the General as a reflection of imperial Russia, and contemplates his downfall as a reflection of this Russia’s downfall. Like so many American immigrants, the General was poor and starving; but, given his history, we may say he was especially degraded and humiliated, as the scene where his claim to the tsarist medal is mocked by fellow extras suggests.
Indeed, the early scene of the “bread line” of extras on the heels of the opening of the studio gate telegraphs the brilliance of Sternberg’s filmmaking; everyone is pushing toward the window for the assignment of costume—everyone, that is, except the General, whom we see being pushed as if by historical fate, at the mercy of the tumultuous crowd suggesting the revolution that deposed him. Insult is added to injury when another extra chastises him for pushing: “Who do you think you are!”
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