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.)