Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Silent Cinema

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.

But Underworld is no rise and fall tale of a street hood with Tommy gun and a Shakespearean story arc but a nocturnal fantasy of the urban criminal underworld, in part informed by Hecht’s references to real Chicago crime history (the murder of a rival gangster in a flower shop is right out of Capone’s rise) but transformed into a tale of loyalty and love in a violent world. Bancroft plays Bull as a self-made criminal legend and his street thug manners are on display throughout, crude and rough (you can practically hear the guffaws as he opens his mouth to laugh like a braying donkey) but also staunchly protective of his friends and a man with the courage of his convictions. The film opens in the middle of heist, which Sternberg presents in a brief montage of tight close-ups so precise and informative and efficient that it communicates everything we need to know about the crime and Bull’s talents as a robber. His character is outlined in the next few scenes when he grabs a street drunk who witnesses his escape and takes him up to his hide-out. Clive Brook (later to reappear in Sternberg’s Shanghai Express) is all soused elegance and rumpled dignity as Rolls Royce Wensel, who may be a bum but is no squealer. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship—Bull’s confidence in this drop-out inspires him to clean up and dry out and Wensel returns the favor by with his unflagging loyalty, to the point that he denies his attraction to Bull’s girl, the elegant jazz baby Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

Aside from the quintessentially Sternbergian textures of the party scene—the streamers littering the tables and floors and filling the screen like nets—it’s a film that strips detail from the imagery in most scenes. The opening nighttime robbery is on a street swept clear of crowds, cars and debris, with two figures are alone in a deserted set that carries the silence of the night in its imagery. There’s not an extraneous object in Bull’s apartment or a prop that isn’t used in the basement bar, where the stray feather that floats down from the entrance, announcing the arrival of Feathers, commands all the attention on the screen. The performances are similarly stripped down to the essentials, even Bancroft, whose rowdy play in public is contrasted by his control in private. By contrast, Brook is reserved, a man who has seen most everything and gotten drunk to forget but can’t. Where Bancroft’s emotions pour out of his entire body, Brook holds himself in check at all times, his every move deliberate and measured. He bows ever so simply to offer his thanks and his respect and he just barely cracks a smile to signal his affirmation and appreciation. And then there is Evelyn Brent as Feathers, a woman whose outward being is as much a performance as any Dietrich character, but in her case it’s a carefully constructed show of nonchalant confidence and apathy. In this world, to let your emotions slip is to make yourself vulnerable and these are all survivors. So much is communicated in the gazes (both direct and averted) from one character or another but it’s the austerity of the performances and the mask-like faces that conceal emotions behind a stony resolve that gives them such power.

Evelyn Brent was a veteran of dozens of low-budget features but no star when she was cast. Sternberg brought out a strength and a poise (not to mention a bumped-around beauty that starts out hard and brassy and softens over the course of her story) that would make any modern audience think she’s a top-rank star of the era. On the strength of this and of The Last Command (1928), she should have been.

The Last Command was Sternberg’s promotion, in light of the unanticipated success of Underworld and his uncredited assignments “salvaging” such troubled productions as It (1927) and Children of Divorce (1927), on which he reportedly reshot a significant part of the picture, and editing down the work of another obsessive maverick, Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928). It came with a bigger budget and a bona-fide international superstar, German actor Emil Jannings, cast as a frail, broken old émigré with a palsied nod reduced to extra work in Hollywood but once the proud and arrogant leader of the Czar’s armies. In the conventions of Hollywood melodrama, it wasn’t the loss to the Bolsheviks that broke Sergius Alexander. It was love, as the flashbacks reveal.

In classic Sternberg style, the entire film appears to be created in the studio, exteriors and interiors. Sergius at the studio gates shows only throngs of desperate men pushing against the bars of a gate, as much of an establishing shot as we’re going to get. Sternberg and his set designer, the great art director Hans Drier, present the dream factory of Hollywood as just another assembly line in sets that suggest realism in carefully controlled details. For the scenes in Russia, however, this backstage “realism” gives way to expressionist exaggeration and exotic flourish: a snow-covered town created at what must be half-scale, the better to make the lines of soldiers marching down streets and pouring out of arriving trains look like armies massing at the frontier.

Emil Jannings in "The Last Command"

Down this street (really no wider than an alley) arrives Grand Duke Sergius Alexander in a command car that looks like a millionaire’s limousine, Jannings is all aristocratic dignity and privilege, impeccably dressed and groomed, his appearance as carefully sculpted as his manner. He gives off an arrogance of power in his very carriage, a sharp contrast to the broken, humiliated old man in the framing sequence that he’s channeled from The Last Laugh. It’s a commanding and very effective theatricality that earned Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor and ostentatious a performance you’ll find in these silents, standing in contrast to the restraint, the masked glances and still stares of William Powell and especially Evelyn Brent, but it’s more than just old school skills versus modern film acting. Sternberg uses the contrast to differentiate the sides of the battle, emphasize the class difference and create a dynamic of old Europe and new. When we first see Powell, he’s the director in the framing sequence choosing his ideal face for the Russian General and finding it in Jannings’ Sergius Alexander, and he’s as dapper and crisply American as can be, with changes of expression writ small and body language intimate. Even Brent feels more American than European in her scenes in 1917 Russia, concealing all her feelings and emotions behind a hard mask.

Sternberg doesn’t deify or sentimentalize Czarist Russia (the Czar himself is presented as a capricious fool, oblivious to the demands and realities of war while he struts through meaningless inspections playing commander in chief) but the film has little respect for the “revolutionists,” who are portrayed either drunken mobs or scheming backroom plotters. Yet in Powell and Brent Sterberg finds dignity and drive, people motivated by a cause. And in Brent, Sternberg offers a sleek, modern actress, her tragedy radiating from within rather than worn like a costume, her emotional truth communicated in what she doesn’t show, in the way she doesn’t do follow expectations. When those glaring eyes that have witnessed so much suffering drop, it’s not just the softening of resolve in the face of unexpected affection for her enemy, it’s guilt in her betrayal of her mission. The jewels and furs and lavish wardrobe that adorn her in the company of Sergius are like the scarlet letter of her treason. Love doesn’t conquer all here, it conquers the lovers.

The Docks of New York (1928) is the simplest, most delicately visualized and most perfect film of the set, a turn-of-the-century bowery answer to Sunrise, with a romantic idealism fighting its way out of hard-scrabble lives and resigned characters of the waterfront culture. Where Sunrise is a European inflected American fairy tale, Docks is an American romance of bruised lives told with exquisite grace from a script as simple as a fable and as resonant as a novel.

George Bancroft in "The Docks of New York"

The first image of Bill (George Bancroft), a brawny stoker shoveling coal in the bowels of a steam ship, is a veritable painting in action: the eternal laborer at work, outlined by the fires of the furnace like some abstract portrait of muscle and effort blackened with soot and sweat. The film follows his escape brief escape from this state, a night of shore leave where he plans to add to the gallery of beauties tattooed across his body and scribbled in chalk across the commons, and the hope he brings to rumpled beauty Mae (Betty Compson), who he saves from drowning (suicide attempt most likely, though never explicitly confirmed) and coaxes back to life by the sheer force of his will and his live-for-the-day philosophy, which is what allows him to marry her in the barroom where he shows her how he lives.

No one takes the marriage seriously, Bill least of all (he has no marriage license and his promise to get one “First thing in the morning” is accepted with the same conviction with which he gave it), but waterfront missionary Hymn Book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz) looks at the hurt and need in Mae’s eyes and brings a dignity and gravity to what was a parody of a sacred ceremony, hushing the rowdy bar and even bringing a shuffling discomfort to Bill as he repeats vows he never intended to keep. O’Brien moves like he owns the world, deliberate, strong and direct, worrying about no one but himself, but in this moment he is acutely aware of just how much his actions will reverberate in the life of this girl.

But Mae is no naïf. Both pessimistic and the biggest optimist in the film, her belief in this fantasy is willful and temporary, using this game to escape her sorrow at least for the moment. When Mae promises “I’ll be a good wife, Bill,” it’s not out of belief that this is a real marriage, but an offer made without any real expectations. The dissolve to morning, with Bill quietly getting dressed to sidle out before Mae wakes up, is perhaps the least hidden announcement of sex in silent movie history, and his final gesture—leaving a chunk of his pay on her table like a he’s paying off a hooker—should be the final blow of reality upon the fantasy marriage. But circumstances, including a beautifully staged murder seen (signaled by startled pigeons and two puffs of smoke that drift over the window), bring them back for the morning after talk Bill tried to avoid, a beautifully modulated scene with another lovely and evocative effect (a POV shot that clouds over as the viewer tears up), and that tender scene sets up the perfect end of the film.

This the film where Sternberg really perfected his sculpting of screen space in depth through light, shadow, scrims, smoke and fog, but it’s also his most evocative direction of actors. Bancroft is more measured and restrained than in Underworld but no less direct; his Bill is a man who acts upon his impulses with no reflection or restraint. He’ll grab a beer from a nearby patron because he’s thirsty, knock the guy flat when he makes a fuss, and then pick him up with brotherly concern and hand the beer back without blinking. Betty Compson makes Mae yet another of Sternberg’s magnificent women, a bruised romantic who has learned not to give in to her dreams, but continues to dream regardless, and under her rag doll looks is a young woman who has been kicked around, body and soul, so long that she hasn’t much hope left. It’s another performance in the eyes and body language, from the resigned posture recovering from her near-drowning to the bar girl affectation she puts on to distract Bill from yet another fight and play his date. Watching Compson’s Mae slip back and forth from the practiced poses of fawning bar girl and adoring date to little girl lost both afraid and eager to give in to Bill’s sweet talk and put her hope on line once more is what gives the film its heart. Watching them blur together gives it its soul.

Betty Compson and George Bancroft
Betty Compson and George Bancroft

The three-disc box set presents each disc in a separate paperboard digipak and each film is offered with two scores. Robert Israel composes and orchestrates dramatic original scores for small combo and small orchestra, very satisfying and the closest to an “authentic” score that the set offers (the original scores no longer exist but Israel consulted cue sheets) for each film. (Israel writes a brief essay on his scoring The Docks of New York here.) The Alloy Orchestra offers original compositions for Underworld (both moodier and jauntier than Israel’s) and The Last Command, and Donald Sosin creates a lovely score for piano and voice (soprano Joanna Seaton) for The Docks of New York, including an original lyric that serves as Mae’s theme.

Visual essays, a relatively recent form of DVD supplement that combines lecture, documentary and commentary (the earliest I recall was Janet Bergstrom on Murnau’s lost film Four Devils, presented on the Sunrise DVD), have become some of the most interesting and richly informative contributions to DVDs. The two essays on this collection are of the same high caliber we’ve come to expect, and far more interesting and informative than the large majority of documentaries and featurettes that are regularly attached to such special editions. Janet Bergstrom’s 36-minute “Underworld: How It Came to Be” chronicles Sternberg’s early career and explores the way he shaped Underworld through production details (film clips, production stills and art) and film analysis. If Bergsrtom is the creator and grand dame of the visual essay, Tag Gallagher is the master poet of the form. His 35-minute “Von Sternberg till ’29” explores his visual style through all three films with perceptive observations and a critical analyses that are as poetic as they are probing. “Smoke photographs wonderfully and brings alive the dense space between the camera and the model,” he remarks in a sequence that conpares the meaning of cigarettes through each film. “Life itself seems passing. Similarly, light and shadow wakes up the meaningless blankness of walls and doors. So does mist.”

Also features an archival 40-minute interview with Josef von Sternberg conducted in 1968 for Swedish television, where the director is articulate and intent, very relaxed and seemingly forthcoming about his early career. Also includes a 96-page booklet with essays on each film, Ben Hecht’s original story for “Underworld” and an excerpt from Sternberg’s autobiography on working with Emil Jannings.

For more on what Dave Kehr describes as “self-evidently one of the most important releases of the year” on his blog, read Dave Kehr at NYTimes, Daniel Kasman’s visual appreciation at Mubi and Guy Maddin at Criterion Current (as essay that reportedly was originally commissioned for the booklet but left out for reasons of space).

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3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg