Josef Von Sternberg

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Jack Smith

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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 alive, most right images of the world's cinema…. (p. 4)

His expression was of the erotic realm—the neurotic gothic deviated sex-colored world and it was a turning inside out of himself and magnificent. You had to use your eyes to know this tho because the sound track babbled inanities—it alleged Dietrich was an honest jewel thief, noble floosie, fallen woman etc. to cover up the visuals. In the visuals she was none of those. She was V. S. himself…. The plot [of The Devil is a Woman] piles up situation after situation—but needlessly—Sternberg graphically illustrates this by using a tired actor giving a bad performance. If his hero is a phoney for the purposes of the story, V. S. casts an actory actor in the part & leads him into hammy performance. Which comes to the acting in V. S. films. He got his effect directly through the eye. If the woman is deceptive he would not get Dietrich to give a great (in other words the convention of good acting wherein maximum craft conveys truthfulness) perf. of a woman conning…. For he was concerned with personal, intuitive, emotional values—values he found within himself—not in a script. With people as their unique selves, not chessmen in a script.

Possibly he might have been afraid of reaction if it were known that this visual fantasy world was really his own mind. He might have deliberately obscured, distracted attention from the shock that might have occurred if his creation had been understood through the eye. To close the ears would have thrown the viewer into an undersea, under-conscious, world where the realities were very different from what the script purported. He needn't have worried. As it was no one had that ability to see. He was misunderstood and well understood. Well understood in that his covert world disturbed; misunderstood in that no one knew why or appreciated the wonder of being disturbed. (pp. 4-5)

Jack Smith, "Belated Appreciation of V. S.," in Film Culture (copyright 1964 by Film Culture), No. 31, Winter, 1963–64, pp. 4-5.

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