Josef Von Sternberg

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Curtis Harrington

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

[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 disheartening of environments, where one would expect to find a story illustrating some fault with the social structure capable of producing such conditions, we find instead this slum-district background employed symbolically as a visual portrayal of inner ugliness, an ugliness with which the individual is confronted to conquer by himself, within himself. External reality here was primarily used to illustrate an inner conflict, although the story accepted on its immediate level, not on its symbolical one, produced exactly the same cumulative effect; the story could be understood on either level, depending, somewhat, on the spectator's preference or depth of perception. (pp. 406-07)

Today von Sternberg claims that it was his sole sincere work, and that all of his subsequent films were merely "arrogant gestures."…

Its creator presents the one film to us as a work of art, the others as commercial efforts, of little value. But then he makes one more statement which qualifies this: he adds that the only other film that came near in its realization to his aims was The Devil Is a Woman….

The content of [The Salvation Hunters and The Devil Is a Woman] varies so that they might have been made by two different men, with widely divergent views of life and the world. But we can discover the explanation for this seeming discrepancy within the director's creative method; the formal structure of these two films, although they differ (for one is necessarily a work of greater maturity, if not of greater freshness), displays evidence of a control which von Sternberg lacked in many of his other films, and both are, for the most part, successful examples of his method. (p. 407)

Perhaps to ease his mind von Sternberg searched for, and soon found, a common denominator of content which appeared in both his sincere attempt, The Salvation Hunters, and his later, first outspokenly commercial film, Underworld [1927]. With this discovery in mind, the compromise did not seem, perhaps, so difficult. The common denominator was sex. Von Sternberg possessed a strong erotic sensibility, a feeling for women which he could get over on film, and he began to use this ability as a basis on which he could reconcile his aims with those of an essentially commercial industry. (p. 408)

[The Case of Lena Smith (1929)] was an important film, both in its formal development and in its story values. The theme of the film was antimilitaristic; it portrayed the self-righteous Viennese ruling class before World War I, the Prussian mind with its misdirected efforts toward discipline, and the general corruption bred by such thinking…. [It] was his only true attempt at a social theme.

Pictorially, there were the beginnings of many abstract devices which he was to exploit much further in later films. For the first time he painted a set completely white, so that the light and dark of a scene might be controlled entirely with the...

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illumination. In this way the use of carefully directed spots and concealed lights behind furniture could give each camera view a richly varied chiaroscuro. He also used actors in silhouette in the foreground of various scenes…. (pp. 408-09)

In Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrath [which became The Blue Angel (1930)], von Sternberg found the sort of setting and characters he could most successfully adapt to his manner of filming and still make a commercial success….

The settings constructed for The Blue Angel were perhaps the most significant single element in the film. At no moment were they actually realistic, but instead were imaginative extensions of reality. (p. 409)

Historically The Blue Angel has already assumed an important position, because it was one of the first sound films to display the immense creative potentialities of joining sound and image. At a time when most films were stilted and overfilled with dialogue, The Blue Angel came as a fresh, reassuring example of what could be accomplished with the new medium….

In Morocco [1930] von Sternberg developed the formal, structural qualities of the film beyond any previous effort. The story itself was exceedingly simple, romantic; looked at objectively and as a reflection of reality, it bordered on the ridiculous. However, it was not von Sternberg's intention to produce a film of reflected reality, but rather to evoke cinematically an exotic locale peopled with extraordinary characters. In this he succeeded admirably. (p. 410)

An important factor in Morocco was the complete absence of background music. Only natural sounds and music where it would naturally occur, as in the two café sequences, were used. Seen today, at a time when background music is so often used as a crutch to sustain the emotional flow and meaning of a scene, it is remarkable to observe how von Sternberg's control over the formal devices of his medium made it possible for him to develop and sustain each scene by employing only sound effects and a minimum of dialogue. This absence of background music gave the film a sharp, immediate quality seldom found in films today…. (pp. 410-11)

Within the series of Dietrich-von Sternberg films culminating in 1935 with The Devil Is a Woman, there may be traced the development of his exotic-erotic theme material and formal style into a highly unique film complex. In Dishonored (1931) the story motivation became incongruous when the director stressed the abstract pictorial development of the theme. In Shanghai Express (1932) von Sternberg evoked the atmosphere of a revolutionary China with a minimum of means, and, more markedly than ever before, "directed" the action and speech patterns of his actors to fit in with the tempo and rhythmic development of the film as a whole. In Blonde Venus (1932), a story property which von Sternberg directed against his will, a banal piece of maudlin claptrap was so embellished by sheer directorial style as to become an unusual and provocative film….

The most outstanding aspect of Blonde Venus was that it created a von Sternbergian America, a portrait of the United States as extraordinary as Kafka's. Here he was not concerned with reproducing the actual environment or atmosphere of the country (the story covered a wide territory), but instead attempted an imaginative projection of the thematic material at his disposal, that is, The South, A Flophouse, A Night Club, A Cheap Café, A Chemist's Apartment, etc. In this lies largely the film's uniqueness, for it seems actually a story told out of space and time. (p. 411)

As if he had decided henceforth to realize his cinematic theories with a more uncompromising attitude than ever before, von Sternberg produced in The Scarlet Empress (1934) a film that was in most respects a decided advance, aesthetically, over any previous effort. The story, in a literary sense, was almost entirely dispensed with, and there emerged a film developed solely from a visual point of view. The little dialogue was mostly an embellishment; it was not necessary to an understanding of the continuity….

The implications of meaning which von Sternberg put into The Scarlet Empress were almost entirely erotic…. We saw the development of Catherine from a wide-eyed, innocent young girl into a shrewd and calculating woman through von Sternberg's eyes, and he illumined this character development with his very special sensibility.

The theme of the Fatal Woman, as exemplified in the literature of latter nineteenth-century romanticism, a theme which had run through almost all of his former films, became fully crystallized in von Sternberg's next and final film made with Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman (1935). (p. 412)

In its total realization The Devil Is a Woman was von Sternberg's most successful film aesthetically since his first independent effort, The Salvation Hunters, made exactly ten years earlier. In this new film he crystallized all the tendencies that had been present ever increasingly in his immediately preceding films: elements used to create a unique, exotic, visually rich environment in which erotic adventures might take place, the whole being inspired by the Fatal Woman with the enigmatic smile, Marlene Dietrich….

The continuity, narrated for the most part by one of the central characters, allowed von Sternberg to dispense with any attempt to tell his story with dialogue during the central action of the film; he developed each sequence as a purely visual statement, one of the few really successful attempts at flashback narrative. (p. 413)

[Von Sternberg] achieved his greatest success when he discovered his sexual ideal, Marlene Dietrich, and her films at first achieved an immense popularity. But as he developed and refined his exotic-erotic creations they became increasingly unhuman; audiences rebelled against the stylization, the unreal settings, the fabulous mythological creature that Dietrich became….

The fact that The Shanghai Gesture [1941] was based on the old stage hit of the 'twenties … prevented the film from becoming either good drama or interesting cinema. Nevertheless von Sternberg succeeded surprisingly well in imbuing individual episodes with a considerable amount of purely cinematic movement; the whole, however, suffered from too much dialogue. (p. 414)

For the first time von Sternberg developed a male character similar to his female sensualists [in The Shanghai Gesture]. As in Shanghai Express, all the characters were sharply etched in a slightly stylized manner. The curious blend of the naturalistic and the unnatural in the performances of his actors made it seem at times that the performers were attempting to caricature the parts assigned to them; the balance is, in any case, a difficult one between the real as we expect it to be and the creative abstraction attempted by von Sternberg. (pp. 414-15)

Curtis Harrington, "The Dangerous Compromise," in Hollywood Quarterly (copyright, 1948, copyright renewed © 1976, by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. III, No. 4, Summer, 1948, pp. 405-15.


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