Why this might not seem so easy
Josef von Sternberg played a central role in Hollywood’s self-mythologisation. Gary Cooper, in his foreword to the director’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965), wrote of how, “He always wore the rather military gear affected by some directors – breeches, leather boots and a scarf around the neck – so that they could be considered superior to the actors, I suppose.”
There was the ‘von’ part of his name too, an affectation that stuck after his name was extended from Jo Sternberg, reputedly without his consultation, on the credits of a film he worked as an assistant on. Then there was the great backstory of the Austrian Jew born on 29 May 1894, just ahead of the cinematic medium itself, who followed his father’s search for work across the Atlantic before running away from home in his teens to spend a number of years on the streets. He took an early apprenticeship cleaning, patching and repairing old film stock, before getting his major break in the business after Chaplin saw his low-budget independent debut, The Salvation Hunters (1925).
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Von Sternberg was a singular stylist, who conjured up exhilarating and exotic worlds onscreen. Whether recreating a perilous train ride across revolutionary China on a Paramount backlot for Shanghai Express (1932), or invoking a South Sea island idyll on a Kyoto soundstage for The Saga of Anatahan (1953), mise-en-scène was where he dazzled; his images suffused with dappled light, hazy fogs and the defining swirls of cigarette smoke within a frame that left little by way of empty space. All this contributed to a constructed otherworldliness in which his characters were very much a part of the cluttered dcor.
Inevitably his work would be overshadowed by his creations. The most legendary was Marlene Dietrich, whom he ‘discovered’ in Germany for The Blue Angel (1930), brought back to Hollywood, and transformed into one of the screen’s most indelible icons.
Like other such European émigrés as Robert Florey and Erich von Stroheim, von Sternberg fell foul of the Hollywood system he helped define. His filmography is littered with projects that were either aborted or suffered from studio compromise or downright interference. All of this can make it difficult to see the work of the man behind his most famous star player.
The best place to start – The Blue Angel
The Blue Angel (1930) is a landmark in many respects. Aside from marking von Sternberg’s first collaboration with Dietrich, it was the first film he made outside America. It was Germany’s first talkie, made in a language the director freely admitted he had lost his fluency in, a fact that its top-billed star Emil Jannings took great delight in reminding him of behind the scenes of its fraught production.
It’s true that the soundtrack does betray early technological deficiencies, but in all other respects, this is a timeless tale with pitch perfect performances, as Janning’s hoity-toity college professor is bewitched by the bawdy bierkeller songstress of the Blue Angel cabaret, Lola Lola, and soon reduced to cockle-doodle-doo-ing for his supper. With the carnivalesque throng of the bar’s working-class habitués cramming every scene with a raucous energy, von Sternberg presents a pandemonium of hedonism and desire that is seductive, absurd and never less than entertaining. The songs and the fabulous creation of Lola Lola’s devil in high heels, top hat and tails, would form the basis of Dietrich’s schtick for decades to come.
What to watch next
The six films von Sternberg subsequently embarked on with Dietrich in Hollywood, beginning with Morocco (1930), are surprisingly varied in tone and setting. Admittedly, he regularly cast her in the same vein as sexually strident yet insouciant and ambiguous characters somewhere on the spectrum between strumpet and siren. She was the cabaret singer embroiled with Gary Cooper’s skirt-chasing French Foreign Legionnaire among the desert landscapes of Morocco; a seductive Mata Hari type in First World War Vienna in Dishonored (1931); and an itinerant good-time girl riding the Shanghai Express with Anna May Wong.
Dietrich later dismissed them as kitsch, but they remain remarkably fresh to modern eyes. Blonde Venus (1932) is a particularly arch offering, in which she plays a former actress and doting mother who is lured back to the stage to raise funds for her radiologist husband’s cancer, against his wishes. Justifiably so, it transpires. The film features the legendary cabaret number where she emerges from a gorilla costume, like Venus from the waves, against a backdrop of exotic indoor plants and blackface backing dancers clutching spears and shields.
The Scarlet Empress (1934) is a more decorous affair, with Dietrich transformed from the wide-eyed daughter of petty German nobility into Catherine the Great in a narrative succinctly laid out in an early intertitle: “With all her ideas of romance outraged, Sophia Frederica was thrust into the Russian cauldron, her name altered, her religion changed, and pushed like a brood mare into the preparations for her marriage to a royal half-wit.” It is among the most beautifully photographed of von Sternberg’s filmography, as Dietrich sashays around the imperial palace in a series of increasingly flamboyant frocks that threaten to outdo the extravagant set dressing, before her quick costume change into pristine white Cossack garb for the finale.
Von Sternberg’s earlier silent work is also fascinating, with Underworld (1927) pretty much inventing the tropes of the gangster movie in its tale of a love triangle between a mob boss, his feather boa-swaddled moll (aptly named ‘Feathers’) and the former lawyer he rescues from skid row. The Docks of New York (1928) is another early masterpiece, with a steamship stoker falling for a suicidal prostitute he rescues from the harbour, with predictably disastrous results.
The Last Command (1928) presents an intriguing precursor to The Blue Angel, with Jannings playing a swaggering Czarist general brought down by a Bolshevik beauty masquerading as an actress and subsequently reduced to the ignominious status of playing out his own past as an extra in a Hollywood film.
Where not to start
Lower budgets and studio conflicts compromised later films like The Shanghai Gesture (1941), in which the chinoiserie of Shanghai Express is pushed further into pantomime realms in its portrait of the denizens of the amoral Oriental enclave of a casino in the city’s concessions. Ona Munson’s central performance in yellowface comes across as particularly awkward to more enlightened modern eyes.
More intriguing is The Saga of Anatahan (1953), which depicts a group of Japanese sailors marooned on a remote island at the end of the war as they descend into lusty savagery over its only female inhabitant. With a documentary naturalism at odds with the artificiality of its studio sets and with an all-Japanese cast acting in their own language left untranslated beneath the director’s narrative voiceover, von Sternberg’s final film can be viewed as marking the apogee of a unique approach to cinematic worldmaking. As the first international postwar co-production with Japan, its subsequent influence on Japanese cinema is also of interest. Nevertheless, coming at it cold, it is a very odd experience.