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’).
It is clear that somebody who, like Von Sternberg, views human history as a goal-less charade and art as a privileged activity, should stress not realism but artificiality. He has always prided himself on the artificiality of his sets and his plots. ‘I was an unquestioned authority on Hollywood, and that made it difficult to be unrealistic in picturing it. I felt more at home with the Russian Revolution, for there I was free to use my imagination.’ On the other hand, Von Sternberg nurtures the fond hope that, in this way, he can go to the heart of a situation, undistracted by petty detail, by what he refers to as ‘the fetish of authenticity’. In this sense, he sees his work paradoxically as realist rather than symbolic.
Von Sternberg’s work, if anything, is baroque. Yet, at the same time, this is vitiated by a strong streak of 19th-century sentimentality. Perhaps it is rather facile to connect this with his early years in Vienna; Sternberg himself acknowledges the influence of Schnitzler, but hardly ever mentions the baroque which dominates the city. But all the marks of the baroque are in his work: the importance of movement, of light and shade, the multiplicity of ornament, the curious co-existence of abstraction and eroticism, extravagance and chimeras, the retreat from realism into imagination. Von Sternberg’s vision of himself and his art is curiously akin to that of, say, Bernini, even down to the fascination with carnivals. The typical Von Sternberg film is festooned with streamers, ribbons, nets, fronds, tendrils, lattices, veils, gauze, interposed between the camera and the subject, bringing the background into the foreground, casting a web of light and shadow (as Von Sternberg put it, concealing the actors). All sharp edges and corners are veiled and obscured and everything, as far as possible, made awash with swirls of moving light.