For a Josef von Sternberg filmography, click here.
Ironically, Dietrich, who became a frozen, unchanging icon, is applauded for transcending convention, whereas von Sternberg, who in seven films with Dietrich never had her repeat or resemble herself, has constantly been derided for imposing convention – for abandoning true cinematic art (evinced by his German Dietrich picture, Der blaue Engel) for the trashy pornography of tinsel Hollywood (evinced, in crescendo, by his six American Dietrich pictures). His centenary, in 1994, was ignored almost everywhere.
Nonetheless, the truth was palpable at a long-overdue retrospective at the Cinémathèque in Paris: Josef von Sternberg is in the highest pantheon of twentieth-century art. Yes, there is tinsel, and confetti too, along with trees sprayed with aluminum paint, water, mists and smoke – anything to illuminate the canvas, to light up the biosphere in which von Sternberg’s characters exist, a biosphere constituted less by stifling social convention than by the respiration of the characters’ own libidos.
Nothing is hidden. In no other cinema, except perhaps Murnau at times, do real people seem more present on the screen. Curiously they all wear masks, which reveal their nakedness.
He was born Jonas Sternberg, May 29, 1894, in Vienna, the first of five children of impoverished Orthodox Jews. Jonas was a love-child. When, shortly before Jonas’s birth, his father Moses married his mother, against his own father’s will, Moses was disinherited. When Jonas was 3, his father, something of a bully, left for New York, found only menial jobs, sent for his family when “Jo” was 7, returned to Vienna when he was 10, then back to New York at 14. From age 17 Jo was on the street, on his own, often without a bed at night. He changed his name to Josef and eventually chanced on work repairing sprocket holes. For the next 13 years he worked on a succession of film jobs while travelling back and forth to Europe in cattle boats and, during World War I, making training films in the US Army. After the war he rode all around Italy on a motorcycle, determined to see every church.
He had dropped out of high school in his first year, unable to deal with English and determined to learn on his own. And he did. In 1922 he published Daughters of Vienna, a free translation of Karl Adolph’s Töchter; picked up a “von” after finding it attributed to his credit as assistant on a British film, By Divine Right (Roy William Neill, 1923); and in 1924 made The Salvation Hunters in three weeks for $4,900, a starkly poetic tale of poverty and depression which, after being hissed at its premiere, was hailed as a masterpiece by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin – after its lead actor, George K. Arthur, bribed Chaplin’s projectionist to show the first reel “by mistake.”
Unimpressed, von Sternberg (1) walked away from a film with Pickford; made The Exquisite Sinner which MGM then refused to release; left the studio after telling his cameraman to photograph the ceiling rather than the star of his next assignment; made The Sea Gull which its producer (Chaplin) then destroyed for a tax write-off; and found himself an assistant director at Paramount. There, as a reward for re-shooting half of Frank Lloyd’s Children of Divorce in three days, he was allowed to make Underworld which Paramount then shelved. “You poor ham, take my name off the film,” wired its writer, Ben Hecht.
But in New York a theater needed something to show, and Underworld created such instant sensation, solely by word of mouth, that the theater had to stay open all night. The first great cycle of gangster films was launched. George Bancroft became a star. Ben Hecht won an Oscar.
A series of masterpieces followed, most with Bancroft, stories of male mortification leading to self-destruction. It was to direct such a vehicle for the star Emil Jannings, who had died already from mortification in The Last Command (and Murnau’s Letzte Mann), that von Sternberg went to Berlin and made one of the landmarks of film history, Der blaue Engel, and “discovered” Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich was 29, had played in twenty pictures, and was a familiar name in the German theaters and cabarets. Von Sternberg made her a superstar by giving her the same in-your-face presence he had given Bancroft. In America, where The Blue Angel had not opened, he made her a star a second time in Morocco. In the meantime he had had her lose weight and taught her body language and the rhythms we saw already in his pictures with Georgia Hale, Evelyn Brent, Betty Compson, Fay Wray (and Bancroft); Dietrich does not have to speak (and rarely does): the sparsity and nakedness of her gestures reveal everything, provocatively, because imponderable, mysterious, even to herself. Von Sternberg’s direction, as always, was almost purely mechanical (“Count to six and look at that lamp as if you could no longer live without it”), but his methods purified Dietrich’s energy. Nothing so intense had been seen since Dreyer directed Falconetti.
Some critics were hostile; finding no explanations in dialogue, they concluded von Sternberg lacked psychology or depth. When he made a film of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dreiser insisted on scenes explaining the hero in terms of his past. But there is no past in cinema, there is only now, as each image strikes us, and if we cannot understand “everything” from a character’s emotions, we shall understand “nothing” from dialogue. It is by living in the now that von Sternberg’s characters (for good or ill) transcend their past, their environment, their convention, their sense of belonging, their solitude. “Our faith controls our lives,” von Sternberg insists in The Salvation Hunters; but all his characters afterward say, “I don’t know how I could have done these [terrible] things.” The imponderable is not hidden. The pictures with Dietrich, enormous moneymakers at first, became increasingly abstract and unprofitable. The government of Spain pressured Paramount into withdrawing the last of them, The Devil Is a Woman, soon after its release.
After two assignments at Columbia, von Sternberg went on a long trip to the Far East, fell ill, and was flown to London for an operation. There, Alexander Korda offered I, Claudius. Von Sternberg’s enthusiasm was rekindled. Probably he would have made a masterpiece (some reels survive). But Charles Laughton simply could (or would) not play his scenes and Korda (who had perhaps wanted Marlene more than Claudius and hadn’t gotten her) used the excuse of his wife and star Merle Oberon’s very minor car accident to cancel the film and collect the insurance. A year later, feverishly intent on preparing to shoot Germinal in Austria, von Sternberg suffered a severe nervous breakdown; and Hitler annexed Austria. At great expense von Sternberg was able to help twenty members of his family escape into Switzerland.
In 1941 von Sternberg made the splendid Shanghai Gesture lying on a couch. He married again in 1943 to Jeanne Annette MacBride, and finally in 1948 to Meri Ottis with whom he had two children. He studied and collected modern and primitive art, painted and sculpted (including his own tomb stone), designed two homes he had built for himself, travelled, read and taught. Films were not his obsession, he concluded. He was unable to prevent Howard Hughes from re-editing his next two films, and having them re-shot by other directors.
In 1952 von Sternberg went to Japan, at his own expense, and made The Saga of Anatahan without pay, entirely in a make-shift studio, and in Japanese, with an actor giving a running commentary, as in the Kabuki theater (or the benshi during Japanese silent films). Some sailors, marooned on an island during the war, had just come home; for seven years they had refused to believe the war was over, and five had been killed fighting over the only woman on the island. As von Sternberg had tried to do all his career, he wrote the scenario, designed the sets, operated the camera, and manipulated his players like a puppet master. Von Sternberg was about as close to a “total auteur” as one can get. And now he replaced the Japanese commentary with his own voice in English. “Though language is not always the best way to communicate an idea, its use should not be ignored entirely,” he conceded. The picture made back its cost in Japan, despite subtitles and some nationalist resentment. But in America it was a disaster. Von Sternberg fiddled with it for years, changing the title five times and in 1957 having his cameraman shoot some nude scenes which he spliced into the prints. Nothing helped.
In 1959 he began teaching at UCLA and in 1965 published a marvelous autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. In 1969 he died.
“Our aim has been to photograph a Thought,” Josef von Sternberg announces in his first movie, The Salvation Hunters (1925). What thought? At movie’s end he spells it out: “It is not conditions, nor is it environment – our faith controls our lives!”Really? Is von Sternberg so naive? Would even his own characters agree with him?
“I don’t know how I could have done these things,” exclaims the murderer in An American Tragedy. “The enemy [is] with us in our own bodies,” respond the marooned sailors in The Saga of Anatahan. And, contrary to the Thought, “conditions” seem in control in this 1952 “postscript to the Pacific conflict.” In war, law and morality collapse, people kill each other.
But does war cause the collapse? Or are conditions themselves created by instinct, desire, thwarted lust and stupidity? “We dedicated our lives [to war] like children playing a game without vision or foresight,” confesses Anatahan’s benshi (the narrator), using von Sternberg’s own voice.
The Thought and the questions it raises are the “imponderables” that von Sternberg claimed as his theme, the obsession of all his movies. What motivates us? Why do we do terrible things? How can we be said to be in control of our lives? Or even of who we are? Is there truly a “me”? or is “me” just a delusion?
Anatahan, An American Tragedy, Thunderbolt, The Docks of New York, Crime and Punishment, The Devil Is a Woman, among others, devote themselves to pondering motivations. Shanghai Express continues for nineteen minutes after it’s over, solely to ponder faith. Never for a moment in any of the seven Marlene Dietrich pictures can we stop wondering what she is feeling. Men in von Sternberg’s movies tend to agonize, women to do what they must. Or is that simply Josef’s male gaze?
In any case, von Sternberg makes his gaze felt. His camera is self-conscious, his cinema too. Indeed, so richly self-conscious is his cinema, that his narration in The Saga of Anatahan is almost redundant. His people, too, indulge in self-conscious gazing and, like von Sternberg’s voice, which pretends to be a sailor, his people always assume a role when they choose to engage with the world. In Blonde Venus, Helen (Dietrich) uses her nightclub act to satirize male roles, first as a “gentleman” in white-tie and tales and long cigarette holder, then as a gorilla. And gentlemen, Helen’s husband among them, turn into gorillas in Thunderbolt, An American Tragedy, Shanghai Express, The Devil Is a Woman, Crime and Punishment and Anatahan.
The middle class has always enjoyed seeing itself mocked; we applaud Helen’s travesties and perhaps save less pity for Herbert Marshall than he merits. In his earlier identities he was sympathetic. Who of us does not have many identities, roles, costumes, professions, positions and masks? Sometimes tout le monde a raison even inside a single head. And a strong case can be made that our multiple identities come less from choice than from conditions and environment. Anatahan‘s sailors are likened to the crashing waves and twisted vines; they are unable to end their war. Helen’s husband’s fury is likened to a speeding locomotive, and echoed in his robotic movements; he is unable to be otherwise. Catherine (Dietrich) in The Scarlet Empress is surrounded by images of torture which both cause and reflect her savage personality, and similarly oppressive is the poverty in The Salvation Hunters. And many of von Sternberg’s contemporaries saw things in this ardently emotionalized fashion: Chaplin, Fairbanks, Griffith, Walsh, Stroheim, Vidor, Murnau, Ford, Clair, Wellman. Typical of this “social-realist” tendency (which ended around 1935) is the way von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy details exploitation of garment workers and hotel employees and, in contrast to George Stevens’ 1951 remake (A Place in the Sun), favors the working girl over the wealthy one.
Yet Theodore Dreiser took Paramount to court because An American Tragedy was not deterministic enough. And leftist critics agreed, lambasting von Sternberg for “an amazing ignorance of the moving forces behind human behavior and social reality.” (2) In von Sternberg, the forces are inside us, and only in society by second hand. In Blonde Venus Herbert Marshall falls in love with Helen-Dietrich when he sees her swimming nude and then on stage (not difficult tricks), and this love story becomes the obligatory bedtime fairytale for their little boy in his crib, fittingly, because Marshall fell in love with a fairytale, an idea, an image. But as always in von Sternberg such superficial love is deflected by the presence of a third person (or obstacle), and Marshall’s thwarted libido turns into lust for power. His frustration not only makes love obsessive, and magnifies the ideal image (now sadly unattainable); his frustration makes the lover a monster. Thus the locomotive: Marshall’s weakness masquerades as hubris. Thus also the serial murders on Anatahan. Even the Russian revolution, in The Last Command, is for von Sternberg essentially a libidinous reaction to mortification. This is not what the left thought of, in the 1930s, as motivating social realities.
Most von Sternberg movies are tales of mortification and self-destruction. Der blaue Engel, Thunderbolt, American Tragedy, Crime and Punishment, The Devil Is a Woman, The Shanghai Gestures, Antahan… Prior to Dietrich, what puzzles von Sternberg is less the threatening dominance of the woman than the mixtures of sadism and masochistic subservience with which the men retaliate against their own fantasies. There are mock marriages in almost every film.
One is reminded of Turgenev, and even more of Le Rouge et le Noir and Stendhal’s De l’amour, in which the suicidal mechanisms of l’amour-passion (l’amour-fou), the third person, the detour into power lust, social masks, mores and ideology are detailed.
From Blonde Venus on, however, it is the dominance of the woman that obsesses von Sternberg; the males are foils. In The Scarlet Empress it is the woman who retaliates for mortification and thwarted desire. Political despotism and sexual dominance merge into a sublime sadistic orgasm – all of it the volte face of Dietrich-Catherine’s own experience of terror. Fantasies create realities. The world we experience is the one our libido constructs in exasperation. Is this libido the same as “faith”? Is it faith that controls the sick fantasies of The Devil Is a Woman, The Scarlet Empress, Crime and Punishment, Anatahan? When Keiko in Anatahan sees three sailors watching her bathe in a tub, she reacts first with embarrassment, then responds to the inner pleasure of power and exhibits her leg, rejecting civilized morality on impulse, and in that moment becomes Queen Bee of the island. But in so doing, she enslaves herself to power. (3)
If I act by instinct, am I responsible? Do “I” or “responsible” have any meaning, outside of a faith that is perhaps only fantasy?
Thus the urge, in von Sternberg’s movies, to break through masks, to deflate the brutality of Romantic obsession, to find the identity within – a search that becomes an unattainable ideal. The image itself – Marlene’s face, eyes, body, staring into the camera without a veil – becomes the obstacle to knowing the person inside, as well as the revelation of that person.
It is not that von Sternberg hides the person from us. Quite the contrary. Nothing is hidden, least of all the imponderables. Every emotion is displayed openly, but in a jumble of conflicting emotions, desires, passions and physical gestures over which the person may not have control. The result is provocative, seductive. “The more you cheat, the more you lie, the more exciting you become, X-27,” exclaims Victor McLaglen to Dietrich, a female spy, in Dishonored. Von Sternberg’s characters live on a purely emotional level, not on logic, and their emotions become actions: they are their emotions, their actions. Their emotions fill the screen in pure action, resonating in illuminated water, mist, smoke, and chiaroscuro, achieving, in von Sternberg’s words, “an emotionalized background that would transfer itself into my foreground”: and thought is photographed.
What the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are doing is often as imponderable and revelatory to them as to us.
“Are you in love?” asks Adolph Menjou in Morocco.
“I hope not!” replies Amy Jolly (Dietrich).
Because, as Stendhal explains, love is not only the only thing worth living for, it is a disease, often fatal, and Amy Jolly will end up running into the desert after Gary Cooper, abandoning a sweet millionaire, and joining “the Foreign Legion of women.” In Dishonored X-27 (Dietrich) succumbs to the same disease, defies a prohibited love, condemns herself to death and betrays her country. What distinguishes these heroines from Emil Jannings’ professor in Der blaue Engel (whose similar capitulation to a least-appropriate object of amour-fou is equally suicidal) is the forthrightness, the lack of hesitation in the women. Whereas von Sternberg’s men start out content and end up humiliated, his women have usually reached a point of desperation long ago. In six films they are pulled out of the water. Neither death nor prostitution pose a threat to them. Says X-27, “I suppose I’m not much good.”
“The only enemy most of us really have is lonesomeness,” von Sternberg says in Anatahan. His people inhabit isolated universes. Women in his pictures exist in a separate sphere, by choice. Betty Compson in The Docks of New York is already Dietrich: hands on hip, slant, eye tricks, head arch. Fay Wray in Thunderbolt, like Dietrich in Dishonored, defies male uniforms, deportment, logic and inflated importance with risqué clothing, seductive speech patterns, capriciousness, and careful inspection of her manicure. Each individual, female or male, dwells in a separate sphere. Von Sternberg’s cutting rejects the rhyming camera angles by which directors like Ford, Walsh, McCarey, Ozu and Vidor use montage to insist that individuals, however alone, are part of a community. In their movies, the angles and composition of one shot fit together geometrically with the next: community is organic. Not in von Sternberg. His camera rarely assumes the perspective of a character; instead it stares from the outside, like the benshi narrator in Anatahan, emphasizing its own real presence – and thus the real presence of the eyes it stares at, faces so incredibly intense, imponderable, with such a self-consciousness of occupying a particular space and moment, imprisoned but undetermined, unpredictable, not yet defined. These people know these are the big moments of their lives. Dietrich, particularly in Dishonored, almost never speaks, it is all body language, with eyes that blink mechanically. “Count to three and then blink,” von Sternberg probably told her. The artifice, the sparsity, the nakedness, the sheer provocation of her movements baits our attention. Turning her head, from a certain angle, becomes a heroic gesture forever exploited by von Sternberg’s heirs. Tilting her head under a wide-brimmed hat, up and down, becomes an expression of pathos exploited by Kinuyo Tanaka in Mizoguchi’s Sansho dayu. When people do speak, they sing the way Straub-Huillet’s characters sing – open, exposed, hiding nothing, bold. And they are so physical. Like in Renoir, these bodies are raw and fleshly, and full of defiance. Their emotions shock us like shots of water, foam, or mist. Reality is endlessly shocking: the hidden identity that acts, that feels and is felt, that cannot be seen.
The salvation they hunt for is real love, which entails an affirmation of their real self – or at least a moral choice of a real mask, in other words an attempt to impose mind over matter. Helen and Ned’s mock marriage in Blonde Venus turns true when they choose to live within their son’s myth. At the end of Anatahan it is less the sailors’ homecoming than Keiko’s forgiveness that suggests a happy ending. These are people who have discovered what is truly important in their lives. “A good part of our life,” comments benshi von Sternberg in Anatahan, “is spent in trying to gain the esteem of others. To gain self esteem, however, we usually waste little time.” Thus he admires the heroism of X-27, in Dishonored, when silently and quickly she decides to forfeit her life by letting Victor McLaglen escape. But even more than von Sternberg admires her heroism, he is moved by the self-esteem with which she responds to McLaglen’s “Come here.” She adjusts her shoulders, flicks her head, and walks toward him out of the frame. A heartbreaking void is suddenly full and somehow this brief shot is one of the magic moments in cinema when someone is truly there. It’s a mistake to think that great art is subtle. It is bold and unblushing and definite.
In Morocco Amy Jolly (Dietrich) walks out onto the stage in a man’s tails and top hat, and simply stands there smoking, above the pit, while people boo. We understand without discourses but by myriad instants scattered through one mere minute, we understand identity, and why this was such a tour de force of shocking liberation in 1930, of both delight and terror, and still feels so today: an immense defiance; unashamed of sexual lust, prostitution, exhibitionism; indifferent to what people think: she kisses a girl and picks up a stud. And is applauded. Toward Menjou, in contrast, she is professional; in a flick of a second she looks him up and down and shows pleasure at what she sees. Most movies cannot express this much in two hours.
And it is pure action. When Amy Jolly sizes up Menjou, she turns her head in a close shot, and the motion is continued in the same direction into the next shot, panning as she walks around him. This type of cinema is sculpture in motion. Besides making movies, von Sternberg sculpted and painted, and in his movies the shapes and motions give us entry into Amy Jolly’s emotions (and von Sternberg’s as well). Toward the end of Morocco, she sees that Gary Cooper has carved her name into a table, which is all the encouragement she will need to run out into the desert after him; now she stands motionless and simply raises her eyes: the two motions (running and raising) have the same emotion, just as when, hearing Cooper’s troop returning, she makes a jerk and spills Menjou’s pearls on the floor.
Is this the same woman, close to suicide, whose defiance wowed the nightclub, who said the female camp-followers “must be mad”? At the end there is only wind on the soundtrack, and burning sand, and just as before, when she left the nightclub for Menjou, she takes no belongings now. Has she fallen from power? She only had that power because she no longer gave a damn, and had only such power as exists in a world of sado-masochistic jealousy (like Anatahan, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman). Amy Jolly’s impulsive motion now sculpts her hope in life, her energy, her anima. Like Keiko. Perhaps it is true after all: “Our faith controls our lives!” Or maybe we can’t help it. Faith and everything are big question marks in Morocco and Dishonored, and at the end of The Saga of Anatahan. Light keeps shifting.
Of one thing there is no doubt: Morocco reaffirms the magic of the movies, makes everything else look worn and faded, like a hot summer sunrise in the middle of a cold winter night.
Josef von Sternberg filmography
1925 The Salvation Hunters
1925 The Exquisite Sinner (lost)
1926 The Sea Gull (destroyed)
1927 The Last Command
1928 The Dragnet (lost)
1928 The Docks of New York
1929 The Case of Lena Smith (lost)
1930 Der blaue Engel / The Blue Angel
1931 An American Tragedy
1931 Shanghai Express
1932 Blonde Venus
1934 The Scarlet Empress
1935 The Devil Is a Woman
1935 Crime and Punishment
1936 The King Steps Out
1939 Sergeant Madden
1941 The Shanghai Gesture
1943 The Town (short)
1950; 1957 Jet Pilot (mutilated)
1952 Macao (mutilated)
1952; 1958 The Saga of Anatahan