Josef Von Sternberg John Baxter - Essay

John Baxter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is only in the light of Sternberg's private life that the world of his films is illuminated; a world where fathers, if they appear at all, are self-interested and remote, mothers raucous harridans or dowagers of reptilian hauteur, children savages with the instincts of the jungle, men cowering victims who both fear and welcome the lash of contempt that their women, alone in his films retaining their individuality, can wield….

If Sternberg's character is complex, his work is infinitely more so. He broke new ground in cinematography, and had enormous influence on cinema design and acting. Yet he invented nothing….

But even if his sources are observable, it is clear that in arranging the material he borrowed Sternberg was motivated by a strongly personal and original style. (p. 14)

Sternberg's alternative to the Hollywood style of film-making was a synthetic language of personal statement. Story was unimportant, elapsed time insignificant; most of his films leap years in the telling, charting an emotional relationship or moral decline without respect for chronology. Imitating Kammerspiel, he used lighting, décor and minutely observed gestures to entice from nature and the human face their hidden "spiritual power," and his development became a search for new elements that would allow him to distil in greater purity this inner essence. (p. 16)

No words can convey the atmosphere of a Sternberg film, so personal are his associations. That all his films were in some sense autobiographical cannot be doubted, but reminiscence was a passport into new worlds of artistic experiment. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, Sternberg's style was always the servant to his subject, though by choosing to examine the minute variations of emotional experience he laid himself open to charges of triviality. Certainly his work is trivial in plot…. But all his films explore perceptively some mood or emotional state, chart the development of an attitude, analyse the delicate evolutions of a relationship in ascendancy or decline. They have a psychological power that transcends simple plot. Under his scrutiny a reality emerges that is at once obvious and infinitely complex in its implications, the world of human emotion, of love and its dark concomitant, the desire to destroy. (p. 22)

John Baxter, in his The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg (copyright © 1971 by John Baxter), A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971, 192 p.