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Josef von Sternberg

Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Blue Angel’

The Blue Angel (Kino) – American director Josef von Sternberg went to Germany to direct Emil Jannings in his transition from silent to sound cinema and returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

It’s a perfect pairing in this case: the repressed petty provincial schoolteacher Rath, so obsessed by appearance and authority, and the happy-go-lucky showgirl Lola-Lola more concerned with his pleasure and freedom. With such a strong tale (adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel “Professor Unrat”) behind Sternberg’s layered visual style, it becomes his most dramatically driven sound film, and his most tragic. (The story of a man’s ego destroyed by his social descent also echoes an earlier Jannings classic: F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.) The luscious spray of nets and scrims and artful clutter is on gorgeous display in the nightclub scenes, which are simultaneously cheap and exotic, tawdry, and enticing: A marvelous, messy contrast to the neat regimentation of Rath’s everyday life.

The UFA/Paramount co-production was shot simultaneously in German and English versions, but the English version (shot for the American market) is shorter and clumsier, with the two stars performing in a language that they are clearly not fluent in. Kino’s earlier DVD release features both versions but the Blu-ray includes only the longer, original German-language, newly restored from archival 35mm film elements by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, with optional English subtitles. It does not port over any of the supplements from the previous DVD release.

Style vs. ‘Style’: The Good, the Bad, and the Whatever

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1980]

Junior high-school memory (Art class? English? Doesn’t matter): “art = form + content.” Sez who? Sez the teacher, who does not want to be bothered with picky questions about art, won’t say anything about form that she can’t test you on via the multiple-choice method, and wants to read essays only on what the poem is about.

Does style come into this anywhere? Oh, sure. Somewhere, vaguely, grudgingly. “The author’s style”—that is, his way of doing things; sort of a signatory manner. Nice to have, but apparently not so necessary as form and content. Consoling words, form and content: art sounds evanescent, indefinable, but form and content smack of industry and consumerism. Style is something extra, a conversation piece, maybe even frivolous, like a car cigarette lighter or power windows. You could get where they wanted you to go without it—to the pragmatic, this-will-be-good-for-you-and-prepare-you-for-life meaning (or “message” as the student mind, quick to psych out the priorities, swiftly translates it). A piss-poor destination, to say nothing of how it scants the pleasures of the trip.

YES – Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, ‘The Wild Bunch’

Huge title card: “THEN—”. Followed by: “Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience.” Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content—the junior-high equation trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading experience extends in time. “Content” is not content; “the meaning” is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, stripmining through “the story” to get to “the themes.” “The meaning” is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon’s gravity. Content is what happens, from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one’s life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.

***

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Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

Marlene Dietrich in her first Hollywood role, with Adolphe Menjou

[Originally written for a University of Washington Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Sternberg and Dietrich”; reprinted in Movietone News No. 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

Watching Dietrich occupy cinematic space is one of the most intoxicating experiences that movies afford. Among my most vivid memories of The Blue Angel is Lola Lola’s amused, self- and other-appraising surprise as she watches Professor Rath defend her long-departed honor: sitting at her dressing table, high hat a-tilt, she inclines her head and torso along the left side of the frame and slowly draws her knee up into the right: her possession of the moment, her comprehension of its possibilities, is confirmed complete in one sensual adjustment of her position, itself as spontaneous as the act of thought, but defined in all its implication by the director’s framing and distance. Standing alongside the self-important café proprietor Lo Tinto in Morocco, Amy has only to knock out her collapsible top hat to comment upon his claim that his clientele is composed of the cream of society. Similarly, his prolix advice on how to size up likely sugar daddies among the audience is pronounced clearly superfluous by every syllable of body language emanating from the silent lady whose mind is already out there on that stage where she will simply … stand … and wait for a man she knows will be there to subdue the raucous house. If he were not there, to be sure, she could manage the trick herself (but, on some nonverbal level, Amy seems to know what she’s going to find that evening, and she and Legionnaire Brown go through their initial strides as though following a scenario they were singularly privileged to have read beforehand). This we can readily certify from the thorough raptness of the entire café as the tuxedoed Amy accepts a glass of champagne from the monsieur and claims a flower and a kiss from the young woman at his side: Sternberg’s mise-en-scène provides the delicate, completely dynamic visual context for Dietrich’s actions, and within that context Dietrich conducts her own forays into the emotional dangerousness of her personality.

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Silents Please: Shadows, Silence and Sternberg

3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.

Sternberg Before Sound (and Dietrich)

But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.

These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.

Underworld (1927), his third feature, has been called both the original gangster film and the proto-gangster film. And while it doesn’t look or play much like the films that blasted through the throes of the early sound era—Bull Weed (George Bancroft), the (anti-)hero of this piece, is no gangleader but a solo artist pulling heists with nothing but brazen confidence—this atmospheric classic certainly created some of the conventions and even images that were taken up in the sound era. Bull Weed staring up at the neon sign “The City Is Yours” and the gangland ball in the middle of the film, with thugs in tuxedos and streamers coating the floor, are echoed in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), which was also scripted by Ben Hecht (Sternberg rewrote Hecht’s story to the point that Hecht disavowed the script… until it won an Oscar). That’s where it really anticipates the classic gangster story: the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

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