Films: The Salvation Hunters (1925), The Exquisite Sinner (1925), A Woman of the Sea (1926), Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), The Dragnet (1928), The Docks of New York (1928), The Case of Lena Smith (1929), Thunderbolt (1929), The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), An American Tragedy (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Crime and Punishment (1935), The King Steps Out (1936), Sergeant Madden (1939), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Macao (1952), Anatahan (1954), Jet Pilot (1957).
The greatest American director, Josef von Sternberg, was born in Austria in 1894 and finally moved permanently to the US at the age of 17, where he immediately began to work in the film industry as a technician. But despite a lifetime devoted to film, the period of his greatest productivity only spanned a period of a little more than a decade: The Shanghai Gesture (1941) was the last work stamped with his signature virtues. Moreover, because he launched Marlene Dietrich’s film career and made seven movies with her, his career is frequently dismissed as only an instrument to her stardom. Nevertheless he should be recognized as the great Romantic Expressionist of American cinema and an influential precursor to the film noir period that flourished in the 1940s and 50s.
By the use of carefully composed and sculpted imagery, von Sternberg always maintained an externalised mood of fatality and romantic longings. Most of von Sternberg's films were recorded on black-and-white nitrate-based stock, which had a higher resolution and much greater f-stop range (approximately 8 camera f-stops) than the acetate-based color film (4-5 f-stops) that began to come into usage later, in the 1940s. Using the nitrate stock of his period, von Sternberg was able to achieve an exquisitely crafted imagery of chiaroscuro that evoked a dominating mood to the scene. (The full range and beautify of this chiaroscuro is lost on most modern prints of his films.) Perhaps his closest modern equivalent is Wong Kar Wai, who has managed to achieve similar effects with different cinematographic techniques. Both, however, manage to capture the eternally elusive and fascinating nature of the women who occupy our dreams.
There has always been an opposition between Expressionism in Film and what we might call “Realism in Film”. For the latter, cinema is used to depict “objective” reality that is independent of any subjective view. As such, it was seen as a mechanism to reveal the real, objective, everyday lives of people, particularly common people. One could say that the growing preference for “realism” in the 1930s was influenced by the impressive achievements of science and technology, along with attendant socio-political philosophies, such as scientific Marxism, which promised to raise the standards of society by scientific means. There was also a growing facility in narrative manipulation by means of editing and montage, which was advanced and promoted theoretically by progressive Russian filmmakers of the period. Increasingly, films had flashbacks, dream sequences, and complex parallel actions, which could accelerate the pace of action. Von Sternberg’s films, however, never explored this narrative territory. The plots of his films were usually not very complicated, and they took their time to reach their conclusion. For this reason, his films began to decline in popularity towards the end of the 1930s. Perhaps for similar reasons, Won Kar Wai’s films have never been box-office smashes, despite the passion of his devotees.
What von Sternberg’s (and also Wong Kar Wai’s) films have is the power to present the world, not as seen by the mechanical camera, but as experienced by the perceptive mind – the mind that is preoccupied with love, passion, and honour. This kind of film has its own claim to “realism” that can perhaps be more authentic than our lowest-common-denominator representation of the world of “facts”. This is the existential realism that one finds in the works of Dostoyevsky, and so von Sternberg was perhaps the ideal director to portray Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Andrew Sarris has commented astutely on the career of von Sternberg:
In a sense, Sternberg entered the cinema through the camera rather than the cutting room, and thus became a lyricist of light and shadow rather than a master of montage. The control he achieved over his studio surrounding encouraged him to concentrate on the spatial integrity of his images rather than on their metaphorical juxtaposition. Sternberg’s cinema, for better or worse, represents a distinctively Germanic camera movement – from Murnau and Lang – in contrast to Eisenstein’s fashionably Marxist montage.
. . . Everyday life, as such, seldom appears in Sternberg’s cinema. His characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love. Although there is much violence and death in Sternberg’s world, there is relatively little action. The various murders, duels, executions, suicides, and assaults serve merely as poetic punctuation for lives drifting to their destination in reflective repose. Death in this context is less a conclusion than a termination. The paradox of violence without action is supplemented by the paradox of virtue without morality.
. . .Sternberg’s films are poetic without being symbolic. We need not search for slumbering allegories of Man and God and Life, but rather for a continuous stream of emotional autobiography.
(from The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968, by Andrew Sarris)Many of von Sternberg’s films are lost or are currently unavailable for viewing. Those that are left are mostly beautiful, poetic and haunting. They achieve this grandeur, because they strike a chord and call on our deepest sense of wonder about life and love.
(See also "Josef von Sternberg", by Tag Gallagher.)