Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg 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.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

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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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

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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