Josef von Sternberg 1894–1969
(Born Jonas Sternberg) Austrian-born American director and actor.
Sternberg is best known for his series of erotic films featuring Marlene Dietrich as the definitive femme fatale. Ultimately, her exotic character consumed him, and his last films served only as a vehicle for her. Sternberg reveled in artificial atmosphere; he is considered a fine pictorial craftsman and his imagery supersedes plot.
Sternberg's career commenced as a film patcher in Hollywood. Later positions as an editor and writer led to his first feature film, The Salvation Hunters, which he wrote, produced, and directed. Reflecting a sensitive brand of realism and an emphasis upon sordid atmosphere, it displays the formal pictorial style that was to become Sternberg's trademark. His next projects proved abortive, and his lack of popular success made him an "untouchable." However, his work as an assistant director was so successful that his studio invited him to direct Underworld. In this film, Sternberg combined eroticism with an interest in exotic locales, elements also found in the films which followed. The Docks of New York is considered Sternberg's greatest silent film, similar in feeling to The Salvation Hunters.
The Blue Angel became the turning point of his career. Based on Heinrich Mann's novel, Professor Unrath, it tells the story of a professor led astray by a heartless music-hall girl. Most importantly, though, it introduced Sternberg's new star, Marlene Dietrich, with whom he developed a Pygmalion-Galatea relationship. She provided his films with a sensual languor that, complemented by Sternberg's taste for the exotic, displayed woman as the sexual arbiter. At the same time she became an obsession for Sternberg. Abandoning the everyday themes which had dominated his previous work, Sternberg depicts a femme fatale using men as helpless puppets. The Blue Angel acts as much more than an elegant vehicle for women's guiles, however; it criticizes social conditions in Germany and displays some of the most original sets ever produced up to that time.
Morocco and Shanghai Express are beautiful celebrations of romance which express the belief that sentimental attachment will be the victor over reason. The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman were unsuccessful commercially and mark the end of Sternberg's relationship with Dietrich. Audiences tired of his highly stylized work and superficial characters. However, some feel that his sentimental romanticism is misunderstood and regard him as one of cinema's greatest stylists, combining elements of formal cinema with nineteenth-century decadence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
Underworld is just about the best underworld picture that has come along. Melodrama it is, but melodrama that is human, that keeps its actors people while unraveling a plot developed through the interplay of human temperaments, passions, feelings. Cinematically it is modern, in the stride of the art. Imaginatively it is frequently of the first rank, a finely visualized selection of touches that reveal not only the fabric of the characters but as well the predicament of their lives, intensified as they are by the decent instincts that urge them upward despite the dragging impulses that are the result of their conditioning in society's darker strata…. [It] brings a director, Josef Von Sternberg, very definitely into his own as among the real creators for the screen, thus fulfilling a prophesy more than hinted by The Salvation Hunters….
[Underworld] is that rare thing on the screen, a film wrought on the iron of truth, on a framework of understanding visualized in telling, conclusive movement that is the target reached by all good art, and seldom reached, at least so unerringly, in motion pictures. And for its moral values …, they are coursing in the very veins of the story picture; fortunately, neither skin deep nor washed on with a smirk. It is the story picture of a man coming from darkness into light, surrendering at the last gasp the kingdom of his world to gain the kingdom of himself. As the film travels,...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
A story of mother love would, at first sight, seem strange material for Joseph von Sternberg's directorial genius. The director of The Salvation Hunters, Underworld and The Last Command has a record of achievement which would hardly qualify him to glorify motherhood in the exaggerated, hysterical manner which has been so much the mode on the screen….
So it was at least to be expected that von Sternberg would treat the motherhood theme with a difference, would divorce it from the obvious and perhaps even point it up with a touch of irony.
These expectations The Case of Lena Smith largely fulfills. (p. 11)
[The plot] is not altogether proof against criticism. The concealment of the marriage until almost the end, does seem a little tricky though it is effective in confounding our moral snooper. Also, parts of the court proceedings seem somewhat arbitrary. On the one hand it is news to us that a woman in Lena's position would have been deprived of the custody of her child simply because it was illegitimate, and on the other hand it would have been immediately restored to her after she waved her marriage certificate. Nor is the conviction on the contempt charge convincing….
Von Sternberg directs with his usual insight and his feeling for the scene, giving, in particular, a believable picture of Vienna. But sometimes he hurdles over difficulties somewhat too airily missing thereby the dramatic strengthening of his story by showing obstacles convincingly overcome. It is dangerous practice to confront a character with an insurmountable will and then to show him suddenly on the other side of the wall. We refer particularly to Lena's all too easy kidnapping of her son. She walks into a children's home in which there are apparently no locks, no night watchmen and no nurses on duty. But again this is a minor flaw in an otherwise exceptional picture, possibly a privilege of mother love seeking its own. (p. 12)
"Exceptional Photoplays: 'The Case of Lena Smith'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1929), Vol. IV, No. 2, February, 1929, pp. 11-12.
[In Morocco] like all motion pictures of the front rank, the material is that of the screen alone, the narrative thread an exceedingly simple one. It amounts to the way it is embroidered. And here the result is [a cinematic pattern that is] brilliant, profuse, subtle, and at almost every turn inventive.
Morocco sets its sound in the background. Its speech is purely that of pictures, except where the pictures can be told more effectively by sound. (pp. 4-5)
[When] a character speaks it is merely in substantiation of the thing the action has made you see and know. The artist gives his engagement supper to his friends. All is sumptuous, splendid, covered with light, gaiety and tender feeling. The tragic past of his fiancee is gone. Then the drums of the returning Legionnaires are faintly heard. You get the sensation of the stirring city in the warm night outside…. One could go on finding in this film a text book and finding in the firm and sinewy grasp of its director the resolve to bring the motion picture, with the new powers that science has given it, back to its own….
As a study of the attraction that a man and woman of a certain type may have for one another—that can tear a woman from whatever of safety and pleasure her existence holds—Morocco is not unsubtle in its psychological reading. And this it is, perhaps, that leaves us feeling that we have seen something true if strange. (p. 5)
"Exceptional Photoplays: 'Morocco'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1930), Vol. V, No. 9, November, 1930, pp. 4-5.
The Blue Angel is surely one of the outstanding pictures of this season's screen offerings. Strictly speaking this is a foreign picture. For it was made in Berlin. But it is a foreign picture with English speech, occasional German interpolations being used for the sake of atmosphere and realism….
[Again] we have a story of the disintegration of a fine character to the point of complete degradation with a tragic flash of his former self at the end which heightens the dramatic contrast. And again the emphasis is upon character delineation rather than upon action…. (p. 9)
The Blue Angel is notable from the directing angle on account of von Sternberg's clever combination of talking and silent film technique. He uses dialogue sparingly and climactically and employs long sequences of purely cinematic story telling. In other words, he allows the camera to tell the story whenever possible rather than letting the actor tell it vocally. (p. 10)
Occasionally Mr. von Sternberg's directorial style leads him into slow tempo as if building up for a dramatic suspense which never quite comes off. This is all the more noticeable in a picture which has a minimum of action and a surplusage of characterization and atmosphere. (p. 12)
"Exceptional Photoplays: 'The Blue Angel'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1931), Vol. VI, No. 1, January, 1931, pp. 9-12.
Dishonored is likely to seem a fabric of "hokum," especially when it is taken so seriously by its director. Each episode is protracted with fond care, the story moves slowly and ponderously, and the result naturally seems long drawn out. Furthermore, the picture concentrates on [Marlene Dietrich] and a mood, and what faults it has can be attributed mainly to the reverence in which Mr. Josef von Sternberg holds his own story, his own actress and his own mood.
To see only these defects, though, is to overlook much of positive value, much of promise, in Dishonored. (p. 12)
[Von Sternberg's] use of dialogue and sound is almost always an integral use and … it reinforces...
(The entire section is 392 words.)
The direction and the photography, both sound and silent, of "Shanghai Express" … are of such excellence that only a first-rate story could match them. Unfortunately, the plot is hackneyed and intricate; what is more serious, it seems to be a superimposed mechanism rather than an organic part of the production…. The device of numberless swift kaleidoscopic shots is, of course, not new. But the vibrancy and freshness of treatment must be credited to the direction of Josef von Sternberg. It is he who makes the illusion of a train traveling through strange, war-ridden China [convincingly real]…. The characterizations are real, too, especially the lesser ones, which belong rather to the setting than to the story. It...
(The entire section is 154 words.)
Director Josef von Sternberg has long been famous for the mannered pretentiousness of his photophays, but never has his weakness for ostentation reached the extremes to be found in The Scarlet Empress….
Mr. von Sternberg has concentrated on the wild pageantry and the grim ferocity of the period, and, with his gift for atmospheric settings, pictorial effects, and visual suggestion, it seemed, at the outset of the film, that he was destined to vanquish his rivals.
It is not long, however, before the director's passion for lavish ostentation overreaches itself. Mr. von Sternberg's brooding preoccupation with the mood and color of a story, rather than with the story itself,...
(The entire section is 156 words.)
The imagination can become a horrible thing indeed when it is given as much scope and freedom as Von Sternberg apparently enjoyed while making his version of the Catharine the Great legend ["The Scarlet Empress"]. Or perhaps one had better say that when, as happens every so often. Hollywood decides to make a mistake, it is able, because of the vastness of its resources of every kind, to make a truly colossal mistake…. Josef Von Sternberg now shows us just what can be hatched when an overcharged imagination is set loose upon an eighteenth-century Muscovite background. One had always recognized that the Russia to which Catharine came as a bright and ambitious young bride must have been far from a pleasant and...
(The entire section is 250 words.)
[The Blue Angel's international success] can be traced to two major reasons, the first of which was decidedly Marlene Dietrich. Her Lola Lola was a new incarnation of sex. This petty bourgeois Berlin tart, with her provocative legs and easy manners, showed an impassivity which incited one to grope for the secret behind her callous egoism and cool insolence…. The other reason for the film's success was its outright sadism. The masses are irresistibly attracted by the spectacle of torture and humiliation, and Sternberg deepened this sadistic tendency by making Lola Lola destroy not only [the professor] himself but his entire environment. A running motif in the film is the old church-clock which chimes a popular...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
[Do Josef von Sternberg's] films have any importance, other, let us say, than that of having brought to the screen the redoubtable filmic personality of Marlene Dietrich? The answer, which, I feel, is most definitely in the affirmative, lies in the perceiving of certain cinematic tendencies and ideas which are gradually gaining momentum in the commercial cinema of Europe and in the experimental cinema of the United States. (p. 405)
[In The Salvation Hunters (1924)], we can see the beginnings of a formal method of film construction and, more specially, the positive statement of an artist confident of the inner strength of the individual.
Placing his characters in the most...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)
[The] personal theme of The Blue Angel foreshadows an impending social disaster. Sadism was about to be unleashed in mass form in Germany and the film is, of course, a study of the spiritual torture and humiliation of a small-town man with whom everyone can readily identify himself. (p. 49)
[From the outset], the professor is haunted by the figure of the clown in the background, for he, the man of ideals, is himself a clown in the world of The Blue Angel. Thus at the beginning, when the professor first enters, the cabaret is shown as chaotic, almost surrealistic, with its whirling clouds, miasmic veils, and shifting backdrops; at the end, when he is part of it, it is steady, and brutal...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
Inevitably, one approached a work so obviously personal [as The Saga of Anatahan] with certain associations and expectation. The subject itself seemed to give ideal scope for certain aspects of von Sternberg's past work: his eroticism, his sensationalism, his decorative flair. Part of the fascination of the film is that it satisfies none of these expectations—so much so, in fact, that it has an almost unconscious "alienation" effect…. Von Sternberg deliberately eschews violence, and most of the murders take place off screen; only in one set—a charming hut entirely hung with variously shaped shells—is there evidence of his mannered, personal use of décor. Instead, von Sternberg has attempted to treat...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Von Sternberg's movies had to have plots even tho they already had them inherent in the images. What he did was make movies naturally—he lived in a visual world. The explanations plots he made up out of some logic having nothing to do with the visuals of his films. The explanations were his bragging, his genius pose,—the bad stories of his movies. Having nothing to do with what he did, (& did well) the visuals of his films….
I don't think V. S. knew that words were in his way, but he felt it—neglected them, let them be corny & ridiculous, let them run to travesty—and he invested his images with all the care he rightfully denied the words. And he achieved the richest, most...
(The entire section is 474 words.)
[Ostensibly The Scarlet Empress] is about the marriage of the young and innocent Sophia Frederica to the mad Grand Duke Peter of Russia, and the insurrection which resulted in her becoming the new Empress Catherine. Looking at it today, one is continually puzzled (and delighted) by Sternberg's ambivalent attitudes towards the material. Surely nobody could have doubted that he was sending it up ("those ideas are old-fashioned—this is the eighteenth century" proclaims the ardent, black-wigged Count Alexei to the pouting young Catherine). Yet Sternberg's insolent wit was the last thing commented on at the time. Strange, too, how these comic anachronisms are made to alternate with set-pieces played solely for...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
There are no scabrous passages ever in Sternberg, not because he is a moralist—although he is that, in its most salutary sense, without any a priori moral judgments, like a psychologist or psychoanalyst—but because it would be a waste of film footage, every foot of which is precious to a director with so much to say, with so many comments to make. His characters hardly ever even kiss and on the rare occasions when they do it is usually hidden behind a fan, a cloak, a back, or in a half-light. He has better ways of indicating romantic feeling or, when he wants to, purely sexual ones, by innuendo in his incisive dialogue and telling imagery. So sure is he of what he is doing that he doesn't need to pander to...
(The entire section is 669 words.)
[The Blue Angel is important because it so presciently shows the immaturity and sadism of the German middle class.] In its singular contemplation of the sudden disintegration of a pillar of bourgeois society under the quick, corrosive influence of a strong application of gutter sex, it starkly reveals the imperfection and fraudulence of the facade of middle-class decency and discipline that its ponderous hero represents. It sourly suggests the soggy culture out of which Nazism oozed. And in the sadistic frenzy of the schoolboys to torment and destroy their hated teacher after they have witnessed his weakness for the cabaret girl, we may spot the incipient viciousness of later Hitler Youth.
(The entire section is 367 words.)
It is only in the light of Sternberg's private life that the world of his films is illuminated; a world where fathers, if they appear at all, are self-interested and remote, mothers raucous harridans or dowagers of reptilian hauteur, children savages with the instincts of the jungle, men cowering victims who both fear and welcome the lash of contempt that their women, alone in his films retaining their individuality, can wield….
If Sternberg's character is complex, his work is infinitely more so. He broke new ground in cinematography, and had enormous influence on cinema design and acting. Yet he invented nothing….
But even if his sources are observable, it is clear that...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Between the lines of [Sternberg's autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry,] and behind the images of the films, one may detect the constant contention of discipline versus indulgence; intellect versus faith or the inexplicable; civilisation versus the savage or exotic; and the tendency to conceal versus the tendency to reveal. Finally, there is the role of Sternberg as artist: 'scientist' versus 'vamp'. These roles are paralleled in the projections of himself in his characters, generally as man versus woman. Within Sternberg the artist and the man, the two sides seem to vie for ascendancy. In the films, these contradictory personal proclivities are externalised personified to fight it out on the screen; and the...
(The entire section is 1547 words.)
Thunderbolt looks very much like an attempt to repeat the highly successful formula of Underworld. But where the earlier film had a triangle situation as three-dimensional as a pyramid based in the curious sort of love affair between the brutish Bull Weed and the gentle, courteously ironic Rolls-Royce …, Thunderbolt operates from a much simpler, more Hollywooden premise which leaves no place for the ambivalent moralities of Sternberg's world…. Clearly conscious of [a] shallowness in the characterisation, Sternberg tries to compensate by elaborating a cat (the mysterious lure of the underworld) and a dog (tranquil domesticity) as symbols of the emotional dilemma: a symbolism which eventually...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Never has Josef von Sternberg made the surfaces of reality seem so fragile and the shapes of illusion so tangible as in The Last Command (1928). He deliberately creates not one but several worlds and then dissolves the barriers between them. A carefully constructed film with meticulous attention to techniques, detail, and symbol—the whole nevertheless emerges not firm and clear, but vague and half-seen. This is a remarkable kind of alchemy …; moreover, it is exemplary of his ability to shape, reshape, and destroy his worlds so that they are continually shifting and becoming; it is the essentially modern device of clarity seeking ambiguity, rather than the other way around. (p. 68)
(The entire section is 981 words.)
A Sternberg film is built on paradox and dichotomy, its essence fixed not by one particular image that can be isolated, but by a particular pair of images, or series of images or motifs…. [The Shanghai Gesture] is a Sternberg image set without a film: namely, a virtuoso crane into the depths of a gambling pit near the beginning and a complementary crane out again at the end, echoed by more clipped tracks into the gamblers themselves. As an evocation of a human vortex of feeling and chance, this is as electric and concise a 'fix' on the Sternberg theme as there is. (p. 106)
The whole structure and design of The Blue Angel—classroom/cabaret, professor/clown, students/audience—is...
(The entire section is 1359 words.)