Lev Andreyev (William Powell) is an expatriate Russian film director who, while flipping through a book of photos of extras, comes across a familiar face: Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings, pictured at left) whom he recognizes as a former Czarist general. Andreyev, whom we discover was a revolutionary back in Russia, hires Alexander as an extra to play, what else, a Czarist general. But Alexander seems to be a damaged man; he's a recluse and has a head-nodding tic, and is reluctant to take the role, but he does. As Alexander applies his make-up, he flashes back to 1917 when, as a high-living officer, he confronts Andreyev and his fellow spy Natascha (Evelyn Brent); he whips Andreyev across the face and arrests him as a spy, but takes Natashca as a mistress. She is assigned to murder the general, but when she witnesses him calling off a staged battle for a royal visit, saying he won’t "sacrifice men for the entertainment of the Czar," she softens toward him. Later, however, during an armed rebellion at a train station, Alexander is attacked and forced to shovel coal, a degrading experience which, along with Natashca's seeming indifference, breaks him, bringing on his head tic. In the present, getting back into uniform may be the thing that will break him for good.
German actor Emil Jannings is best known for playing the pathetic college professor in thrall to Marlene Dietrich in THE BLUE ANGEL, but during his brief time in Hollywood in the late 20s, he won an Oscar for best actor for two 1928 movies, this and THE WAY OF ALL FLESH. Jannings is very good here, which makes it especially sad that FLESH is a lost film. He is absolutely convincing as both an arrogant upper-class general and as a doddering and broken old man, and he alone is a good enough reason to see this silent movie. Powell is also very good in a role quite different from the sly charmers he played in the 30s. Josef Von Sternberg directed and his movies are almost always worth seeing for their visual style. [TCM]