Away from Dietrich, Into the Silence: A Personal Journey with Josef von Sternberg
I can’t remember which film I saw first. I’m pretty sure it was Morocco, somewhere around 2004. It might have been The Scarlet Empress around the same time. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I had also tried Shanghai Express, The Blue Angel, and Blonde Venus; all with the same results. The films of Josef von Sternberg that I had seen – all starring the iconic Marlene Dietrich – had left only the slightest impressions on me, and most of those impressions had been less than positive. Sternberg enthusiasts have suggested that his collaborations with Dietrich are basically one long film, which might explain why my reactions to each one have been largely the same. Visually, they are routinely stunning; on a narrative level, they are the worst sort of melodrama; and Dietrich, despite her fame, comes off to me as an actress of low-grade talent. She, above all else, has been my obstacle to enjoying Sternberg’s movies. Her distance, diffidence, and lack of range prohibit me from relating to her in any way. And though some men might find her ambivalence sexy, I never have. Her looks are alright, but I’d rather see Carol Lombard, Bette Davis, or Barbara Stanwyck any day. The main attraction of a Sternberg film, then, has never been much of an attraction for me.
In a last ditch attempt to understand what so many people see in Josef von Sternberg, I’ve turned my attention away from the Dietrich collaborations, looking instead at the films included Criterion’s recently released set of 3 Sternberg silent films – Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York. What I’ve found has been eye-opening. Some things are the same: the visuals are as astounding as they are in his sound films, and his women, at least in their attitude, bear a strong resemblance to the Dietrich persona. But without her for him to drool over, his strengths are allowed the proper room to breathe.
Here’s a brief look at the three films included in the set.
There had been other gangster films before Underworld and there would be many after it, but Sternberg’s 1927 film, from a Ben Hecht script based loosely on real-life Chicago gangsters, is probably the template from which all other films of the genre flow. Its images are iconic, its themes are fleshed out, and its attitude towards the gangsters is horrifyingly sympathetic. It’s easy to overlook Underworld for the glorious series of gangster films that came out of Warner Brothers in the early 30s, but those movies owe much to Underworld. Gangsters needed to talk in the rhythms of a finely crafted street lingo for their on-screen mythos to be fully realized. They needed a Production Code office to fight them in the real world. They needed actors like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson to bring the low life thug the type of charisma that would make them popular. Sternberg was close, though, and it makes for one of the most compelling silent films.
The opening scene of the film should tell us exactly how influential Underworld would be. We watch a bank window explode and know that it has been robbed. Soon we meet the robber, ‘Bull’ Weed (George Bancroft). He stumbles into a drunk (Clive Brook), who knows of his criminal actions and says that his silence is as good as a Rolls Royce, earning himself a nickname after the high end car. ‘Bull’ takes Rolls into his care, underwriting a lavish lifestyle and apparently giving him no responsibilities. This is the type of guy that ‘Bull’ is. He might be willing to blow up a bank for money, but he’ll take care of his friends; and in his own way, like so many gangsters after him, he’s a charmer. A brutal man with a sensitive side, evoking a roughshod teddy bear, Bancroft’s ‘Bull’ is the prototype for future screen gangsters played by Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. Humanizing the murderer and giving him a strong screen persona gives the audience a chance to feel for him and root for him even.
The plot moves classically into a love triangle filled with requisite jealousy, and to the conflict between warring gang factions. But it’s the mood of the film and its imagery that matters most. Though the camera does not move much, each shot is carefully composed to bring us into the actual underworld. This film is seedy, dank, and wild. If you like silent movies or gangster films, Underworld is a must see.
The Last Command (1928)
If Underworld is a tightly drawn template for one of the most iconic genres in all of cinema, The Last Command is something else entirely. One of the most striking characteristics of the Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations is the convoluted plot structures; here, in The Last Command, we can see that characteristic in spades.
We start with a former Russian General played by Emil Jannings who is now in Hollywood, looking for work as an extra on a picture about, you guessed it…the Russian Revolution. The director of this picture is a Russian immigrant, but he was on the revolutionary side. Now, cut back to the Revolution itself as Sternberg walks us through the sordid situation that befell the extra and the director while in Russia. The General took the director’s girl. The girl didn’t exactly fall for the General, but she did begin to realize that he was a noble general because he wouldn’t kowtow to the Czar’s every wish. She saves the General from being murdered by a raucous mob, enabling him to flee Russia for America. Back in Hollywood, the director recognizes the General among the pictures of potential extras and costumes him for a lead role.
The story is as silly as the crooked moustache that Jannings wears throughout the film. The Last Command might have been a stronger film if it had focused more time on the Hollywood sections, but as it is it comes off as a puff period piece. The Last Command is noteworthy mainly for the fact that Sternberg, perhaps in the wake of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, begins to move the camera around more freely. We are also treated William Powell, best known for his lead in The Thin Man, in a dramatic role as the director. Watch this only if you are a Sternberg nut.
The Docks of New York (1928)
Though the coming of sound technology was necessary for bringing the cinematic form to its full potential, it is a little unfortunate that it couldn’t have held off for another year or two. By 1926, silent directors were at the height of their powers. Consider some of the films that come out in those last few years of silent cinema: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, City Girl, The Crowd, Metropolis, The Gold Rush, The General, 7th Heaven, The Man with the Movie Camera, The Battleship Potemkin, and Japanese Girls at the Harbor. Who knows what wonders we might have beheld if we’d been given just two or three more years. Among those late silent-era masterpieces is Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York.
For his final silent movie, Sternberg would combine the narrative strength of Underworld with a sharpening of his visual powers; the camera glides effortlessly across the Paramount sets and the shadows are starker than ever.
George Bancroft returns to the Sternberg world, this time as a human bear who shovels coal for a freighter that’s been docked in New York. He saves a young girl from drowning herself in the river and then drunkenly promises to marry her. The promise is made whimsically and everyone knows it, but the marriage takes place none the less – in the middle of the night at a bar, with a crowed of wasted onlookers reveling in the rare event.
What ensues is a story of harsh redemption for both the girl and the lunkheaded Bancroft. It’s the simplicity of the story that gives Sternberg an opportunity to laze about in his penchant for meticulously crafted set-ups. Each aesthetic choice coalesces with the bitterly sad characters. Their plight is hard but seemingly inevitable, which makes the final resolution all the sweeter. Though the story is melodramatic, it is not as overwrought as many of Sternberg’s most popular titles are. The emotion here is earned and it’s real, making this the best Sternberg that I’ve seen.
Toward an Appreciation of Josef von Sternberg
Nothing in the world could convince me that Marlene Dietrich is a great actress, worthy of the worship given to the movie goddesses. These three silent films, however, have convinced me that Josef von Sternberg was a real talent. I will look forward to seeing his first silent feature, The Salvation Hunters, and some of his later non-Dietrich films, including Thunderbolt and The Saga of Anatahan.
Movies, perhaps more than any other art form, are a combination of so many things, each with its own weight of significance. It can be easy to be distracted by one element or another that doesn’t appeal to you. In the case of Josef von Sternberg, I have found it difficult to see his virtues for the vice that is Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps one day I will return to films like The Scarlett Empress and find that these silent films have shed some light on titles I once failed to appreciate. This is the beauty of the process of discovering the world of movies.