Josef Von Sternberg remains best known as the director of a sequence of films with Marlene Dietrich in the thirties, starting with The Blue Angel in Germany and then continuing in Hollywood. Usually these are thought of as ‘glamour’ films, successful because they took people’s minds off the miseries of the depression era, but today dated, bizarre and basically contentless and empty. Josef Von Sternberg is remembered as an eccentric and monomaniac director, creator of a shopgirl’s dream-world, unable to ride with the times into the post-war forties. Still he retains a certain legendary splendour, an aura of the days when Hollywood was really Hollywood.
In fact, Von Sternberg’s career stretches both before and after the Dietrich period, starting with Salvation Hunters, shot in Hollywood in 1925, and concluding with The Saga of Anatahan, shot in Kyoto in 1953. Throughout this period Von Sternberg fought a continuous bitter battle for full control over the films which he was directing, in order to put into effect the theories of cinema which he had developed. This struggle met with limited and uneven success. Indeed it was not until his very last film, made not in Hollywood but in Japan, that Von Sternberg was allowed anything like the freedom he desired. As we see Von Sternberg’s films, then, we are forced to decipher the true sense of his work through a structure which has been repeatedly distorted and betrayed.
Von Sternberg strongly believes—and his belief has been strengthened by his experience in the cinema—that art is the prerogative of a creative elite, appreciated only by a minority. He interprets interference by producers with his work as an attempt to cater to the taste of the masses, necessarily a lowest common denominator. Cinema is always being degraded and debased, but its vocation is to be an art. His view of human history is fatalist and stoic. Little changes. There is no essential point of difference between Heraclitus and John Dewey, Praxiteles and Maillol, Aesop and Walt Disney. Perhaps there is progress in technique, but, on the other hand, perhaps taste actually deteriorates. Fundamentally mankind is still in its infancy—uncontrollable and self-destructive, panic-struck and full of guilt—and shows scant sign of ever escaping it. Only the artist is able to create anything which escapes the depredations of his fellows and of time. His task is to grasp the myths which most highly express the human predicament and, by mastery of style and technique, re-interpret them to each age. To achieve this, he must understand both the character of the human condition and that of his chosen art.
Cinema, to Von Sternberg, is a new art with its own specific qualities. The secret of the cinema is light: image in motion encountering light and shadow. He puts great stress on this formal specificity of the cinema: he even envisages projecting his films upside-down so that the play of light and shadow in movement is undisturbed by the intrusion of extraneous elements.
Von Sternberg maintains a contemptuous attitude towards actors, whom he views as no more than the directors’ instruments. ‘Monstrously enlarged as it is on the screen, the human face should be treated like a landscape.’ Fundamentally, its expressivity is due, not to the intelligence or skill of the actor, but to the way in which the director illuminates and obscures its features. (It is not surprising that the two actors about whom Von Sternberg is most scathing—Emil Jannings in The Last Command and Charles Laughton in the unfinished I, Claudius—are especially famous for their virtuosity as actors. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich whom he launched from nowhere and whom he depicts as always unbelievably servile to his slightest whim, was his favourite actress. He was destined, in a society where women—and, by extension, actresses—are predisposed to be servile and passive, to be a ‘woman’s director’).