Josef Von Sternberg

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Herman G. Weinberg

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

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 his audiences. His is a cinematic language of the utmost circumspection. (p. 103)

Let us consider [a] criticism leveled against Sternberg in the past—his "mannerisms," i.e., his cinema calligraphy. Now, mannerism is a way of doing things and that is what style is. And if that style is different from the usual way of doing things it becomes a "mannerism."… Sternberg without his "mannerisms" would not be Sternberg…. (p. 104)

Sternberg's "mannerisms" do not exist in a vacuum and alone anymore than his art does. It is part of the whole clamorous and exultant world wherever interesting people are to be found in and out of the arts, in science and sociology too, wherever dedicated men and women with a salutary purpose are even "going against the grain" to accomplish their work.

Seen today, Stemberg's films remind us of all this, they are a reminder of the richness that has all but disappeared from the screens of the world, and of how beautiful it was to see the continuity of an intensely personal style maintained from film to film in a medium so frequently composed of anonymous works. (pp. 106-07)

By richness I don't just mean striking pictorial composition but something even better—an attitude. At the end of a Sternberg film you know the director's attitude on a hundred things or more. Most modern films have no more attitude than a picture calendar (with someone's advertisement). They are impersonal works, carrying no personal statement. The picture is one thing—its director another; there is not necessarily any bond between them. That's never so in the work of a true artist. He makes a personal statement by everything, even the slightest and most casual thing, he does. Nothing happens by chance in such films—and that is their worth because everything in them has been inserted because it has value. This makes a rich film. It is also possible to become so mesmerized by the witchery of a Sternberg film that only when it is over (I'm thinking particularly of The Docks of New York) do you realize it has been a silent film. This also makes a rich film. (p. 107)

We could sum up his work by saying that the iridescent flame of his technique, unique in the cinema, has been put to the service of what the Slavs call zoll and the Germans, Weltschmerz, that world pain, that life-hurt, for it is a sad, guilty world, and his sad, misanthropic films reflect this…. There are few resolutions in his films, although there is sometimes a gallant sort of hope. Shall we say something before concluding about the man behind the artist? His fastidiousness, his intransigence, his implacability where his art is concerned? But that brings us to the artist again. Let us just say that those who truly know him would agree that the frost of knighthood is in his manner, this mandarin among Hollywood directors. There is a considerable name in the history of the cinema—Josef von Sternberg—and he has earned it. (p. 110)

Herman G. Weinberg, in his Josef von Sternberg: A Critical Study, translated by Herman G. Weinberg (originally published as Josef von Sternberg, Editions Seghers, 1966), Arno Press, 1978, 254 p.

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