A Second Look: Josef von Sternberg's vision is as clear as ever
He's remembered as the director of Marlene Dietrich movies, but his sharp eye in other projects is revisited in a Criterion boxed release.
By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times
August 22, 2010
In the popular imagination, the director Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) will forever be linked with Marlene Dietrich. He made her an international star with "The Blue Angel" (1930) and worked with her on six more movies at Paramount in the '30s, including "Shanghai Express" and "The Devil Is a Woman." A control-freak director if ever there was one, Von Sternberg took full credit for Dietrich's elevation to iconhood "Marlene is not Marlene," he once declared, "she is me" but the screen legend he so obsessively molded dominates his own legacy, overshadowing his other achievements. What we often forget is that there was a Von Sternberg before Dietrich came along, and there is a strong case to be made that he was among the greatest filmmakers of the silent era.
Born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna, he grew up mostly in America, dropping out of high school in New York and leaving home as a teenager. He worked a variety of film-industry jobs, along the way embracing the aristocratic "von" that a producer attached to his name (by way of homage, Lars von Trier would do the same decades later). He worked a variety of film-industry jobs as a young man and in 1925, he made his directorial debut with "The Salvation Hunters," a low-budget indie that caught the eye of, among others, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
Even in his youth, von Sternberg had a reputation for difficulty and his early career was marred by clashes and false starts.He made nine silent films in all, only four of which survive; three of them "Underworld" (1927), "The Last Command" (1928) and "The Docks of New York" (1928) are being issued in a boxed set this week by the Criterion Collection. Even by Criterion's high standards "3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg" is an exceptionally well-appointed volume. The bounty of supplements includes two scores per film, a pair of terrific video pieces (by the scholars Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher), booklet essays, former crime reporter Ben Hecht's original story for "Underworld" and an excerpt from Von Sternberg's superbly entertaining autobiography "Fun at a Chinese Laundry."
These are films that were made as silent movies were entering their twilight, a period that was both a last gasp and a final flowering of expressiveness and creativity. In Von Sternberg's supremely atmospheric silents, which stand alongside the crowning achievements of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, the signatures of his cinematic language are already in place: the mobile camera, the complex interplay of shadow and light, the near-fetishistic attention to visual textures and close-up, halo-lighted faces, not to mention the simultaneous delicacy and extravagance with which he treats his themes of betrayal, salvation and doomed love.
"Underworld" is both a forerunner of the gangster picture and a mood-soaked proto-film noir. The opening intertitle, evoking "moon-flooded" streets and "buildings empty as the cliff-dwellings of a forgotten age," establishes the film's nocturnal lyricism; a significant location is a club called Dreamland. The love triangle plot is perfunctory on paper but, as filmed, demonstrates Von Sternberg's uncanny ability to infuse archetypes with depth and pathos.
A tailor-made vehicle for the imposing German star Emil Jannings, "The Last Command" (1928) is also a sly, self-reflexive comment on the supposedly redemptive power of movies. As in Mur nau's "The Last Laugh," Jannings plays a man who has fallen from grace; here he's a for mer general in czarist Rus sia now living in exile and re duced to, of all things, a Hol lywood extra. He's cast in a movie about the Russian Revolution, essentially playing his former self, di rected by a fellow émigré who happens to be his one -time political adversary and romantic rival.
"Underworld" and "The Last Command" were Oscar winners (for Hecht and Jannings, respectively), but Von Sternberg's silent masterpiece is "The Docks of New York," a film that was largely ignored in its day. "Underworld" star George Bancroft plays a steamboat stoker on shore leave in New York who rescues a suicidal damsel ( Betty Compson) from the East River. The long, eventful night that follows includes carousing and brawling, a tentative seduction and an impulsive marriage.
Von Sternberg's depiction of a working-class world is luminous and poetic but never condescending or sentimental. For a movie that's more than 80 years old, it feels almost impossibly fresh, filled with small gestures and images a spontaneous kiss between two women, a threaded needle seen through the weepy heroine's eyes that are as sublime and alive as movie moments get.
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