Josef Von Sternberg

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Joyce Rheuban

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547

Between the lines of [Sternberg's autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry,] and behind the images of the films, one may detect the constant contention of discipline versus indulgence; intellect versus faith or the inexplicable; civilisation versus the savage or exotic; and the tendency to conceal versus the tendency to reveal. Finally, there is the role of Sternberg as artist: 'scientist' versus 'vamp'. These roles are paralleled in the projections of himself in his characters, generally as man versus woman. Within Sternberg the artist and the man, the two sides seem to vie for ascendancy. In the films, these contradictory personal proclivities are externalised personified to fight it out on the screen; and the conflict is expressed in erotic terms….

Sternberg's work displays obsessively this tension between his volatile 'dark forces' and the imposition of rational control. He exhibits his fascination with the contention of reason versus emotion by working out the dynamic possibilities of their coexistence, both dramatically through his characters and visually in his treatment of the images. Confronting his preoccupation with emotion, Sternberg is threatened with the danger to his objective control and the possibility that, as artist, he may not be able to deal effectively with anything else….

Dramatically, Sternberg conceals through ambiguity. He often purposely refuses to develop elements of characterisation, motivation or situation. Dialogue, particularly in the films starring Dietrich, is conspicuously evasive, and delivery often stylised to a flat monotone….

Another way to hide one's feelings is to laugh at them. Sternberg's sardonic sense of humour is ruthlessly unsparing. The resounding outburst of the impressionable young lieutenant who refuses to order the execution of Dietrich as a traitor in Dishonoured is merely an elaborate build-up for the punch line. As Dietrich stands before the wavering firing squad, she takes the opportunity to adjust her nylons and touch up her lipstick while the lieutenant's idealistic monologue is heard offscreen….

Sternberg conceals visually by means of intricate, diverting compositions of light and shadow, pattern and texture. He often literally 'veils' his images. He uses various textural and compositional elements and combinations of these elements placed before the camera—veils, streamers, nets, rain, smoke, glass, light and shadow….

What seems to have attracted Sternberg so irresistibly to his 'dark forces' is their mystery. It is interesting to note that ambiguity and abstraction are the means he uses to disguise his fascination with them. The dramatic and visual style he employs to conceal that with which he is impelled to deal actually results in an effect of emotionalisation. Indeed, he refers to his visual technique as an 'emotionalisation of space'. The very air is a conductor of the emotional charge. (p. 35)

In the erotic relationships in the films between man and woman, Sternberg dramatically externalises that tension within himself between reason and emotion. The leading characters generally correspond to the two sides of this dichotomy—that is, 'scientist' and 'vamp'. Both characters are Sternberg nevertheless. It is therefore understandable that their relationships are always, at one point or another, relationships of conflict.

'Scientist' is a general term which refers in this context to the character who subscribes to some sort of discipline. This character, usually the leading man, metaphorically represents the tendency in Sternberg towards reason, control, intellect and civilisation. Most of Sternberg's male characters do subscribe to some discipline, formal or informal….

Woman in Sternberg's films may be seen as the metaphorical externalisation of his 'dark forces'—those unruly tendencies that reside beneath a civilised surface. This woman is therefore essentially a being of charming beauty and irresistible mystery who can never be fully comprehended by the intellect....

(This entire section contains 1547 words.)

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She is also potentially dangerous, because her powers are ungoverned and ungovernable by rational control. Sternberg fashions her as a stimulus to man's primitive desires and animal impulses and, at the same time, the very incarnation of those desires and impulses—elemental, pagan, exotic. (p. 37)

Sternberg's own version of the prototype movie vamp is, however, not so much the broadly characterised temptress who sets out to lure, seduce, humiliate and eventually destroy a man just for the fun and profit of it. She is rather the more passive, but highly persuasive, stimulus for the male character to destroy himself. Her irresistible attraction depends as much on the man's particular vulnerability as on her specific charms. This is why most of Sternberg's 'heroes' are of a common type. Because of their inhibitions or previous self-denial, they are all the more susceptible to seduction, and often beyond that to hopeless, irrational obsession. Man, the 'scientist', is minus; Woman, the 'vamp' is plus. Opposites attract.

It is of interest to observe the fatalistic way in which characters of such different ways of life and temperament inevitably gravitate towards one another in Sternberg's films. Since both characters personify aspects of a single personality (Sternberg's), their attraction to each other over vast and small expanses of space and time might be interpreted metaphorically as Sternberg's 'split personality' seeking completion….

The blood relationship of Sternberg's 'vamp' to her prototype, dangerous by nature and evil as a matter of course, may be seen in his oblique and tenuous images of woman as, variously, black widow spider, black cat, or the ultimate femme fatale—Death herself. Sternberg's dangerous women are most often dressed, seductively but ominously, in black….

The inevitable connection of beauty with danger in Sternberg's Woman leads unavoidably to the motifs (again paradoxical) of love and hate and love and death. The love/hate motif is expressed primarily in the man's self-destructive response of intensified attraction as the 'vamp' becomes more dangerous, more powerful and sadistic. (p. 38)

Extraordinary as Sternberg's 'vamp' is, his female characterisation transcends this superficial classification. She becomes a sort of Superwoman, incredibly potent in the combination of feminine beauty and charm with the strength of a man. Sternberg's 'Lesbian accents', including Dietrich's frequent adoption of masculine attire and mannerisms, in addition to enhancing her aura of ambiguity, may also be explained as a suggestion of her omni-sexuality….

The woman is generally at least an equal match for the man in the conflict at hand between reason and emotion. The characters often set out at the beginning of a film as in a contest, by shaking hands or sizing each other up with a glance. Often this Superwoman is stronger than the man, since she has access to additional weapons….

For this extraordinary woman, sexual power is translated into military and political power. The motif of love and war in Sternberg's films relates of course to that of love and hate and love and death….

The cinematic evolution of Sternberg's Woman and her relationships with the male characters may serve … as an index to the condition of his own psychological and artistic relationship to the tendencies the characters embody. A particularly convenient case study in an assessment of this evolution is that of Marlene Dietrich. (p. 39)

As the tension between reason and emotion seems to have increased while working with Dietrich, so does the correlative tension between revealing and concealing. Sternberg seems to reinforce his defences in the last films with Dietrich by 'completely subjecting' his 'bird of paradise' to his camouflaging stylisation of visual treatment, dramatic ambiguity and absurd, self-mocking humour….

New and unconventional approaches and techniques are to be found in all Sternberg's previous and subsequent surviving films, but The Scarlet Empress and [The Devil Is a Woman] are relentlessly executed in modernist terms; according to an aesthetic strategy which functions as a direct expression of the artist's consciousness.

It is easy to imagine how anarchic these two films must have seemed at the time of their realisation (as they still are). Sternberg had conceived a most original stylistic strategy to accommodate that inner tension between revealing and concealing his peculiar preoccupations. These films represent the hyperbolic extensions of this strategy—one characterised by ambiguity, dramatic and visual abstraction and dehierarchisation, an indiscriminate mixture of genres, and black and absurdist humour.

In the essentially 'vamp' formula plot and characterisations of Anatahan, Sternberg's last film, may be seen yet another restatement of the same preoccupations. His purported aim is an 'experiment … to alert all of us … to the necessity of reinvestigating our emotions and the reliability of our controls.' However, his warning in Anatahan is relatively free of the diverting stylisation of concealment typical of previous films. Sternberg's 'didactic' intentions are better served in Anatahan—a film without the customary elliptical traps, cryptic ambiguities and mysterious charm of the enigmatic. Anatahan represents the work of a Sternberg relieved of the heightened tension of having to contend (in his own inimitable and captivating fashion) with his infatuation with Dietrich as a dangerously 'too perfect' medium for the expression of a subjective obsession. The labyrinthine abysses of the often outrageous, always beautiful style in which Sternberg's intellectual discipline demanded he dress his emotional indulgence, most dynamically expressed in the series of films with Dietrich, are more intriguing and exciting. In their extraordinarily direct communication of this quintessential quality of tension, these films best express the sensibility and personality of Josef von Sternberg. There are few subjects more intriguing and exciting than Sternberg himself. (p. 40)

Joyce Rheuban, "Josef von Sternberg: The Scientist and the Vamp," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 34-40.


John Baxter


Tom Milne