Thursday, September 30, 2010

Light, Shadow and Synergy - von Sternberg and Dietrich, Part I

Josef von Sternberg is recalled first and foremost as the filmmaker who, 80 years ago, introduced the cinematic persona adopted by Marlene Dietrich as her own, on screen and off, for most of the rest of her life. It is less well known that before their fabled association von Sternberg had already earned a name for himself as an accomplished, if temperamental, director. His artistic reputation peaked during the years 1930 - 1935, when he directed seven films starring Dietrich.
Born in Vienna in 1894, he spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between Vienna and New York City as family fortunes mostly waned. By the time he was in his late teens he was in New York and apprenticed to a man who patched, cleaned and coated motion picture stock. At 20 he received his first film credit while rising through the ranks at World Film Corporation in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Von Sternberg made his debut as a director in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, a picture that attracted attention. Underworld (1927), a "sleeper" that became a pioneering film of the gangster genre, made his reputation (for his contribution, Ben Hecht won the first Oscar given for Best Original Story). In 1928, he directed The Last Command starring Emil Jannings, who won the first Best Actor Academy Award for for his performance as well for his performance in The Way of All Flesh.

Just over a year later Jannings was slated to star in Germany's first full-length sound feature, Der Blaeu Engel/The Blue Angel (1930), and von Sternberg was tapped to direct. Against opposition, he insisted on casting Dietrich, then an actress/entertainer in Berlin, as the cheap cabaret singer who becomes the object of Jannings' obsession.

This was the beginning of a collaboration that made Dietrich an international star and forever entwined their two names. The Blue Angel caused a sensation in Europe and, before its release, von Sternberg was on his way back to Hollywood - such was industry word-of-mouth on the picture. His leading lady followed him immediately after the film premiered in Berlin (to rave reviews). Both signed with Paramount, though Universal and MGM also vied for Dietrich, and made six American movies together over the next five years.

When von Sternberg sailed for the U.S., Dietrich gave him a book to read on his voyage, Amy Jolly: Woman of Marrakesh. Not long after, and despite Dietrich's opinion that it was "weak lemonade," the story was adapted to the screen as Morocco (1930).

It was with Morocco that the evolution of the iconic Dietrich character truly began. Lola-Lola of The Blue Angel had been a tawdry temptress, raw and coarse. And though Dietrich's performance as the ammoral tart was electrifying, Josef von Sternberg had a different archetype in mind when he developed Morocco, the film that would introduce her to the United States, where The Blue Angel was not yet in release.

In her autobiography, Dietrich recalled, "I had terrible difficulties since I had to speak correct English and appear mysterious at the same time. An aura of mysteriousness has never been my forte. I knew what was expected of me, but I wasn't in a position to create this atmosphere. The Blue Angel had been something altogether different, the role of an ordinary, brazen, sexy and impetuous floozie, the very opposite of the 'mysterious woman' that von Sternberg wanted me to play in Morocco."

In his 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, von Sternberg remembered, "I had deliberately selected a theme that was visual and owed no allegiance to a cascade of words..."

Once Dietrich arrived on the West Coast she underwent the full Hollywood treatment. Her makeup was entirely redone (under von Sternberg's close supervision), she was assigned a voice coach and put on a diet and exercise regimen to slim down. Then Paramount photographers took portrait stills and Dietrich, awed, thought them, "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life." The studio, soon realizing it had a potential superstar on its hands, rolled out a massive publicity blitz for its latest discovery...Voila! Dietrich was famous before either Morocco or The Blue Angel were released in America.

In his 1966 book, The Films of Josef von Sternberg, critic Andrew Sarris observed that the director had "...entered the cinema through the camera rather than the cutting room and thus became a lyricist of light and shadow..." In Morocco, this lyricism is revealed to full effect. With Dietrich its fabulous centerpiece, the film wraps itself around her like a long, sensuous von Sternberg's painstaking hands she is stunning, enigmatic, worldly, intriguing. The landscape of the film is a dream atmospheric fantasy of escape into the exotic and the romantic. Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou add just the right accents as rivals of opposing types.

It was in Morocco that Dietrich created a commotion when she famously cross-dressed in a cabaret scene. About the sequence von Sternberg wrote that his intention was, in part, "to demonstrate that her sensual appeal was not entirely due to the classic formation of her legs." And he did.

Upon its release at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, Morocco broke box-office records; both the picture and its star received an avalanche of press coverage.

Much was made of the way von Sternberg showcased Dietrich in the film. One magazine article aptly observed that von Sternberg "not only gave the picture to Marlene; she took it."

Part II...coming soon...


  1. Good post! You are probably going to mention it in a later post, but don't forget Sternberg's composition in depth. He would put veils, nets, other people, and whatever else fit so that it wasn't a camera filming actors on a flat background.

  2. Excellent, Eve. Your writing is wonderful, and the topic so interesting. I really look forward to Part II. Isn't it a good thing that Morocco was make in 1930, before the code came into effect? That scene would never have made the cut. And that beautiful black and white portrait of Dietrich at the beginning of your article -- quite an eye-catcher!

  3. According to von Sternberg's autobiography, he never had censorship problems, even after the Code came in, but I don't think this particular scene would have made the cut post-Code.

    Interestingly, before he worked in film, von Sternberg worked for a Fifth Avenue "lace house." This experience had an impact on the way he later used light to animate his films and relates to his frequent use of sheer fabric as visual texture.

  4. great post EVE..i have always been critical of the VON STERNBERG/DIETRICH collaborations after DIE BLAUE ENGEL...but this first part is written with such lyricism and insight that i may have to change my opinion,,,waitin for II & III...

  5. Thank you my good doctor, and I hope you will give the von Sternberg/Dietrich films another chance. I find them mesmerizing, poetic and visually...indescribable (too many adjectives come to mind). You mention Parts II and III...I originally planned this to be a one-parter, but quickly realized that was impossible. I'm now realizing that two parts won't do justice to the subject either...

  6. An excellent start to a truly fascinating partnership, I look forward to reading the next two installments. I find it interesting how many artist and muse pairings existed between director and actress: De Mille and Gloria Swanson, Godard and Anna Karina and Fellini and Giulietta Masina. I also wanted to mention that your blog design is an elegant compliment to the images and text.