HE WAS BORN Jonas Sternberg in Vienna and raised Joe Stern in New York, but he became famous around the world as director Joseph von Sternberg.
He has been critically dismissed as an artist of empty rhetorical flourishes, then campily embraced for same, the fake aristocratic title being exhibit A followed by seemingly every public statement the man ever made. Once asked about the message of his films, von Sternberg dismissively replied, “Messages are for telegrams.” And then there’s his legendary wish to see his movies projected upside down, the better to appreciate their pure pictorial technique abstracted from story. “The skill with which a man writes makes him a master,” he asserted in his memoir Fun In a Chinese Laundry, “rarely that which he writes about.” Thus the accusations of empty aestheticism, of an overwrought, purely decorative style beholden to narrative only as a professional necessity. But von Sternberg’s dismissal of narrative (describing plots he filmed as “fatuous” or “trivial”) shouldn’t be taken at face value, any more than Hitchcock’s insistence on being “just” an entertainer. To write off von Sternberg as nothing more than a hollow visual stylist is to ignore the teeming subtextual energy of his oeuvre, most richly cultivated in the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich.
In the hands of this legendary taskmaster, the pliable ingenue Marlene hardened into a diamond-sharp icon of the 20th-century. More than a clotheshorse, the inscrutable German actress became the central figure in the director’s arsenal of physical objects, the marshaling force of a tumultuous fantasy world at once insistently concrete and artificially unreal. Picture Dietrich through a haze of gauzy veils and trailing cigarette smoke, splayed across furs and leathers, bathed in fake moonlight and backed by a papier-mâché soundstage tarted up to look like some exotic locale. As in a dream, these objects give material form to internal struggles, less as symbols to be allegorically interpreted than as strikingly (often outrageously) direct psychosexual fantasia. A pitched battle between liberation and control is mirrored in the formal tension of a clear, compositionally tidy presentation and eruptions of unhinged stylistic madness. However willfully banal the dialogue may be, this constantly shifting mise-en-scene develops a storyworld of great precision and power.
Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlett Empress (above, 1934) and The Devil is a Woman (below, 1935)
VON STERNBERG’S SIGNATURE style formatively emerged from the baroque excesses of the late silent era, thus predating his work with Dietrich (which begins with the landmark 1930 sound film, The Blue Angel). It in his early partnerships with George Bancroft and Emil Jannings that von Sternberg first hashed out the mode of intricate primitivism for which he became famous; films like Underworld and The Last Command present characters locked in elaborate conflicts with their baser impulses. Desperately attempting to reconcile an internal power struggle between their hearts, minds and genitals, the characters come to realize themselves through shifting artificial structures.
The best examples of this come from von Sternberg’s most assured silent work, The Docks of New York (1928), set on a near-mythical Manhattan barrier-island during some unspecified past. Our heroine is Mae, a suicidal prostitute reborn through the baptism of a watery near-death. Repeated shots at sea-level focus on the tenuous line between the water’s surface and its depths. We learn about Mae’s feelings for crass coal-shoveler Bill Roberts not so much through dialogue but by the way she runs her white hands along the sleeve of his black leather jacket, as if fondling the oil-slicked vulgarity that defines him. There’s a nearly fetishistic focus on physical objects, glimpsed in lingering close-up. In a memorably vivid moment of characterization, surprise isn’t indicated via facial expression but by an insert shot of a cigarette that falls from a mouth. In another, the film’s biggest dramatic cue—a gunshot—is registered at a remove from the action by a flock of birds startled into flight.
For Sternberg’s aesthetic to come into full flower, however, he needed someone who could support the breadth of his vision. Thus The Blue Angel is the pivot on which his entire career turns. Jannings may be the main character but newly discovered Dietrich quickly takes over as the director’s muse. She already commands the sexy, insouciant deviousness essential to act as ringmaster for von Sternberg’s twisted fantasy worlds. She’s isn’t a great actress, but her face is amazingly mercurial, animated by a perfect mixture of ingenuousness and cunning. Her line readings are stilted, but her wardrobe, which grows increasingly wild as her characters gain some level of agency, speaks volumes.
Jannings plays Professor Rath, a repressed schoolteacher pushed into sudden hysteria by the siren song of Marlene’s cabaret singer. Since Jannings is the lead, Dietrich functions differently in The Blue Angel than in most of these films, where usually she is the one forced to choose between passion or restraint. Here she is passion, a personified embodiment of an elemental force. In representing her growing control over Rath, von Sternberg pursues a radical shift in the film’s mise-en-scene, from neat angles and conventional framing to a funhouse world of canted perspectives, gauzy filters and haphazardly strung feather boas.
Early in the film a caged bird dies, a visual evocation of Rath’s imprisoned sexuality, hammered home by a cut to a flock of birds flapping wildly on the roof. But the image isn’t as simple as it seems. For Rath, emotional freedom proves even more hazardous, because what appears to be liberation is really just a transfer to a new master, from his own prim propriety to Dietrich’s demanding licentiousness. His former self is subsumed by the backroom world of the cabaret, where a seductively twisting staircase, coiling in on itself, imprisons Rath in a less than gilded cage, a fate symbolized by the yoke-like collar he’s forced to wear as part of his sad clown act.
Marlene Dietrich (above) and Emil Jannings (below) in The Blue Angel (1930)
THE TWIN PRISONS of self-control and reckless abandon come to define the thematic antipodes of Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations. In the director’s view, every sexual relationship has a master and a slave, though even the dominant player is imprisoned by the role they have to play, a condition emphasized by the stifling atmospherics of von Sternberg’s pocket universes. Thus Dietrich is sometimes the victim of seduction, sometimes the seducer, and forever vacillating between the comfortable burden of monogamy and the dangerous thrill of free-flowing passion.
Morocco (1930) and Blonde Venus (1932) gravitate towards opposite sides of the dialectic. Blonde Venus, which eventually favors home and hearth over a freewheeling cabaret lifestyle, is buttressed by a fairy-tale structure. The opening credits are displayed over rippling water as Dietrich and some nymph-like friends invade the frame. The man who discovers her in this idyll becomes her husband, and the now domesticated Dietrich, who’s retired from her career as a stage performer to build a home and raise their child, spends most of the film trying to flee the world they’ve created. Her climactic return, followed by their sleepy child begging to hear the story of how his parents met, closes the circuit. The film ends with a fuzzy image of the boy’s spinning mobile, confirming the simple pleasures of domestic life while also recognizing its artificiality.
The structure of Morocco turns this concept inside out. The film opens with another direct descent into illusion, from a spinning globe onto an obviously artificial set, casting a brief glimpse at the sky before plunging into a seductive shadow world of back alleys and barrooms. Here Dietrich begins as a heartless seducer, toying with Gary Cooper’s hapless legionnaire, until his near death upends the dynamic of their relationship. She ends up hopelessly in love, a condition Sternberg visually compares to slavery.
Dietrich in Blonde Venus (above, 1931) and Morroco (below, 1930)
IN ONE SENSE, Dietrich becomes a canvas, a mannequin decked out in an array of eye-catching outfits, from the masked-ball couture of her sexy secret agent in Dishonored (1931) through the crazy feathered frock of the notorious Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express (1932) to the fur hat and muffs of Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress (1934). But the costuming not only traces the arc of her characterizations; it also touches on the recurring theme of libidinal mastery, the idea that power flows through a falsely controlled presentation of sexual potency.
Dishonored portrays international espionage as a form of seduction, sex as a kind of spying, a theme that reaches its sublimely artificial apex at the masquerade, where dizzying dramatic complexity (Dietrich confronts a Russian double agent pretending to be an Austrian army officer pretending to be a cripple) is mirrored in the chaos of confetti and atonal noisemakers, evoking the riotous confusion of erotic desire. Dietrich stalks through the party, seducing her pray like some kind of bizarre erotic gamesmaship.
The czarist palace intrigues of The Scarlet Empress make it one of Sternberg’s most sexual films, which is saying a lot. Empress both reveals in and is horrified by the animalistic sexuality it finds lurking everywhere, a brutality memorably showcased in a slow, leering pan across a feast table scattered with bones picked clean of meat. Dietrich’s character here is initiated into adult sexuality by a lubricious male figure cloaked in darkness, the prince’s handsome envoy. Though he first talks up his master’s charms, Dietrich quickly learns that the envoy is the real prize, the prince a creepy man-child hiding behind the banner of his title; but after a love scene set amidst hay and dirt, the envoy breaks her heart by not being faithful, and she flees, tumbling into a twisted forest that screams psychosexual confusion. But after learning from the current empress that power and passion aren’t mutually exclusive, Catherine cavorts with soldiers in that very forest, establishes her own sexual identity, and climatically rides into court on a bronking stallion to take the throne for herself.
Dietrich in Dishonored (above, 1931) and The Scarlet Empress (below, 1934)
THE PAIR’S LAST COLLABORATION, The Devil is a Woman (1934), skews the usual formula by reverting back to the structure of The Blue Angel, with Dietrich less a character than a force of nature. Here she is all lies and falsity, the devil of the title, tricking one man after another via an endless succession of feints. This unpredictable wildness, the presentation of an insouciant erotic force leading men to ruin, is mirrored by the wild masses and orgiastic energy of Carnival.
The surrealist landscapes of The Devil is a Woman feel like an apex of the artificial worlds Sternberg strove to create. Though it’s able to tranform cardboard sets and lace costumes into an immersive, trance-like psychodrama, Devil also contains recurring images of illusions being punctured: balloons repeatedly popped by cigars, papier-mâché heads shown burst on the sidewalk, their contents spilled onto the curb like brains. The film climaxes in one of Sternberg’s purest, most aggressive set pieces, a fatal duel overtaken by a bursting rainstorm, symbolically blowing his load twice in quick succession.
It’s an elaborately fabricated world that lays bare its own artifice. But, more than a virtuousic exercise in mere technique, it is an emotionally resonant, thematically intricate and undeniably personal work. Far from being a superficial aesthetician, von Sternberg is one of cinema’s great purveyors of endlessly deep dream-worlds. These are films that throb intensely with feelings and ideas.
Jesse Cataldo is a freelance film writer living in New York.