Josef Von Sternberg

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Don Willis

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359

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 symmetrical…. Lola, Kiepert, the clown with the frozen mock-empathetic expression and Rath's students are less characters than parts of a psychic-aesthetic whole, a completion of Rath, one summoning up the other, their insolence predicated on Rath's authoritarianism. His use of his handkerchief forms an absurd part of his regimen; Lola's panties, which he picks up in its place and with which he absently wipes his forehead, are merely an extension of that absurdity. The Blue Angel is a serio-comic vision of the world as fun-house-mirror image of personal sexual paranoia, a witty and sad confirmation of one's worst nightmares. (pp. 106-07)

The world of The Devil is a Woman is created in the image of Concha Perez, or in the reverse-image of Don Pasqual's stolidity. The script, essentially, is one scene replayed over and over—Concha teasing, tempting, then deserting him. The film is comically static, the point being in the repetition of the situation, not its dramatic development. Concha's capriciousness is invariably outrageous, and only nuances of her expression and movement distinguish one outrage from the next….

This derisive imagery pervades Sternberg's films, giving them a look and feel unlike any others. It is less symbolism than visual inflection…. Only in a Sternberg film could you find so bizarre a romantic overture as Oland and Dietrich rudely blowing noise-makers at each other…. [Such] derisive sounds and images function as a putting in place of individual passions, a puncturing of any sense of the self as supreme. They effectively undermine sexual and romantic complacency….

The meaning of [Dishonoured] may seem at first to lie somewhere between the snort of amused contempt with which von Seyffertitz dismisses the dancing dolls and his gallant salute of Dietrich's body; but the Dietrich-doll analogy bristles with all sorts of implications, not the least intriguing of which is that von Sternberg intends von Seyffertitz' salute to be taken ironically, not sentimentally. He is in fact the one who has enlisted Dietrich's services as a spy; thus he is also in effect the person, or agency, responsible for her execution. And so it is that, near-surrealistically, the film connects his casual flicking of the plastic dolls in one scene with the grotesque backward snap of Dietrich's body in another. It is as if, out of time, he had taken her life with a single gesture of the hand. His final salute of her body, then, is the equivalent of the ironic applause for Rath at the end of The Blue Angel. (p. 107)

[Two actions] are the key to Dishonoured: agent X-27 committing treason by allowing her lover and opposite number to escape; and the young lieutenant in charge of the firing squad suddenly refusing, on behalf of love and women, to give the order to have her shot. They're parallel actions in that both put sentiment before duty, but while the first is clearly...

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romantic the second is, for want of an even remotely satisfactory word, lunatic-romantic….

The unprepared viewer's first response is, necessarily, incredulity. If the sequence can be said to constitute an anti-war statement, it is only as, say, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup constitutes an anti-war statement—that is, God knows how but somehow, in some odd corner of the viewer's violated mind. With its half-comic, half-horrific flurry of images, it reads, not necessarily in order, something like, love is sublime, love is ridiculous, love is sublime. It is unclear what exactly is undercutting what. The graphic death of X-27 seems to render the lieutenant's impassioned words just so much air, and in one sense it does: they are seen to have no practical effect. X-27 dies. But the lieutenant's outlandishly incongruous paean to love has an odd, lingering resonance. It is as if X-27's grand romantic gesture, refracted through the lieutenant's crazy-romantic gesture, had been broken down, analysed and found to be an act of insolence or presumption (or, in her country's terms, treason) implying, as in The Blue Angel, death….

In a narrative which seems to be perfectly split into two sections—'innocence' and 'experience'—there is one constant in Scarlet Empress: Sternberg's occasional use of veils and netting to diffuse Catherine's emotions. For instance, in perhaps the key sequence of the first half, her wedding to Peter, Catherine is buried in the oppressive decor. Her presence behind her veil is signalled only by her quickened breath, which rhythmically stirs the candle flame before her face. Again, early in the second half of the film, after the birth of her baby (father uncertain), Catherine's face is seen as a blank, lost in the netting of her bed, as she cheerlessly dangles and then drops a diamond pendant given her for the occasion.

In the first image, Catherine's emotion is obviously great, but it is irrelevant to the proceedings. The innocent, passionate Catherine is lost both in the kinetic movement of the sequence upwards, which culminates in a shot of the Empress Elizabeth, the source of power, and in the general movement of the film upwards, to the climactic shot of the Empress Catherine at the top of the palace throne room.

The later image of the veiled, impassive Catherine is perhaps even more emotionally charged, but the source of emotion is indeterminate—the source seems roughly to be the entire first half of the film filtered through, simply, the image of the twisting pendant and Catherine's eyelids, which flicker in apparent indifference….

Anatahan concludes with a coda which operates on a similar emotional principle. In it the 'queen bee' Keiko …, or her spirit, again faces her 'drones', or their spirits, the men she gave life if not love to on the island. As each man steps forwards out of the shadows, she seems to recall him, and speechlessly looks down and away from him. Both she and the men are virtually expressionless—no exchange of looks could 'say' what they might want to say to each other, as nothing in Catherine's face could adequately express her emotions at the moment when she receives the pendant. Yet the emotional content of the film as a whole seems refracted in only the slight, suggestive movement of Keiko's eyes. That content isn't quite love, pity, sorrow or understanding, but something inexpressible, as is the image of Catherine in the bed. (p. 108)

[Von Sternberg's] films, finally, are less about passion than about passion's context—the sand and wind, the goats and Amy's scarf at the end of Morocco; the noise-makers in Dishonoured and popping balloons in The Devil is a Woman; the crowds at the station at the end of Shanghai Express and outside the temple in [the uncompleted] I, Claudius; the wedding ceremony in Scarlet Empress; the quiet, extended scene of Lola heating an iron in The Blue Angel after Rath stalks out angrily vowing never to return. (In a minute or so he returns, subdued.) The point of the dissolve superimposing Lily and Captain Harvey over the crowd at the end of Shanghai Express seems not just that they lose themselves in it. The dissolve affirms both their disregard of the crowd and the physical fact of the crowd—it doesn't just go away. Love is not a transforming power in Sternberg's films: that's the real message of the lieutenant's harangue in Dishonoured. Love is its own end. (p. 109)

Don Willis, "Sternberg: The Context of Passion," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 104-09.


John Tibbetts