Scott Eyman and the Wall Street Journal review “Von Sternberg”

If you were reading the Wall Street Journal this past Friday, November 12, you would have seen yet ANOTHER UPK book review. Scott Eyman, author of Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille, took a closer look at Von Sternberg by John Baxter, the first biography of the legendary Hollywood director. Read the Wall Street Journal review below:

The Unhappiest Man in Hollywood

Josef von Sternberg’s prideful, obsessive nature made him a great director—and an impossible individual


In the early studio era, when many film directors adopted imperial pretensions and ruled by fear, nobody had more pretensions or was more feared than Josef von Sternberg.


Everett CollectionFATEFUL AFFAIR Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich on the set of ‘The Blue Angel’ (1930).

He was a man who kept large, aggressive dogs, who avoided direct eye contact, who presented his opinions as incontrovertible fact and who treated everyone with unconcealed disdain or contempt. On the set, he had a blackboard; if crew members or actors wanted to talk to him, they had to write their names on the blackboard, and he’d schedule an appointment. “The only way to succeed,” he once said, “is to make people hate you. That way they remember you.”

It was all a pose, but a brilliantly played one. In fact, von Sternberg was a diminutive Viennese immigrant, the son of a Jewish lace worker and a loner with one of the worst cases of short-man’s disease on record. Born Jonas Sternberg, he added the “von” because it sounded more regal (besides, it had worked for Erich von Stroheim). The truth of von Sternberg’s life was that his towering facade of vanity barely concealed a yearning for abasement that he would capture with stunning accuracy in such films as “The Blue Angel” (1930) and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935).

Throughout John Baxter’s bio graphy of von Sternberg— the first for this director—the author is very good on the films and on von Sternberg’s lapidary technique. Although he was mostly reared in New York, aesthetically von Sternberg was utterly European. In his rapturously ornate visuals, he was determined to find ways to make the image, the moment, come alive.

“He communicated in images, not words, and his medium was light,” Mr. Baxter writes. “He moved characters and objects in and out of it, dipping them in silver, dissolving them into a flow of smoke, veils, nets, feathers, fog.” Like his German contemporary F.W. Murnau, von Sternberg began with crude early work; like Murnau, von Sternberg learned quickly.

By the time he was in his early 30s, the director was making silent masterpieces such as “The Docks of New York” (1928) and “The Last Command” (1928), starring Emil Jannings. The latter film was based on a story Jannings had heard from director Ernst Lubitsch, about a real-life Russian general who ended up in Hollywood, performing as an extra in various roles, including, so the legend had it, that of a Russian general. “The Last Command” is a film as wise about the collateral damage of armed revolt as it is about the chicanery of Hollywood in the last flourishing days of silent films.

Then, in 1930, von Sternberg sailed into sound with “The Blue Angel,” the story of a preening Herr Professor (Jannings) undone by lust for a common nightclub entertainer who lacks any trace of modesty but has killer legs and a way with a song; Lola Lola was played by Marlene Dietrich, in the film that made her a legend. Von Sternberg followed that with six more films starring Dietrich—his great discovery, his lover, the woman who gave him the gift of destruction. The plots of these films— “Morocco,” “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express,” “Blonde Venus,” “The Scarlet Empress,” and “The Devil Is a Woman”— are driven by Dietrich, whose self-possession and sexuality make her infinitely attractive and infinitely dangerous to the males of the species, who are more susceptible to ego and its idiot cousin, pride.

Throughout their years of collaboration, von Sternberg became progressively more obsessed with the woman he claimed to have discovered in a Berlin musical comedy. Yet in Dietrich—who was named a corespondent by von Sternberg’s wife in her divorce action—the director found a lover whose only obsession was with herself. He was sexually addicted to someone incapable of fidelity to either men or women.

Von Sternberg’s frosty exterior seems to have hidden a deep self-loathing. His films often feature men who serve as proxies for himself—pompous older figures who fall thunderously in love with Marlene, only to be rejected (“The Blue Angel,” “Morocco,” “The Devil Is a Woman”). These films were not merely love offerings; they were cries for help from a man who professed to need no one.

The emotional crisis in these films typically comes when the victim either accepts destruction or, in rare cases, is spiritually transfigured by a love that has broken down their carefully erected defenses—as in the ending of “Morocco,” where Dietrich’s cabaret singer actually throws off her heels and strides into the desert after Gary Cooper’s legionnaire. (In Cooper, von Sternberg found the only leading man who was even more beautiful—and more diffident—than Dietrich.)

After von Sternberg and Dietrich broke off their partnership in 1935, Mr. Baxter notes, the director struggled in both his life and his art. The film that got away was undoubtedly “I, Claudius” an adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel, which was to have starred Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon. Von Sternberg’s icy hauteur unnerved Laughton, who needed—demanded— careful coddling. The actor flailed around trying to find his character, and the production went far over budget. Finally, ever-wily producer Alexander Korda took advantage of Oberon’s injury in an auto accident to cancel the production and collect an Act of God insurance claim. (Louis B. Mayer’s capsule description of a Korda recipe for chicken soup: “First, steal two chickens . . .”)

Von Sternberg never again found his footing in the movie industry, although the uncut version of his 1941 film “The Shanghai Gesture” has its share of astonishments. (Unfortun ately—see sidebar—only the cut version is available on DVD.) By 1946, he was working as an assistant to King Vidor on “Duel in the Sun.” Vidor had thought the job would be a humiliation, but von Sternberg seemed perfectly content. The Emil Jannings role, it turned out, was a better fit for von Sternberg than the Gary Cooper one—but then that could be said of most of us.

Von Sternberg’s aesthetic was a strange combination of baroque and modernist. At the height of his success, he had commissioned modernist architect Richard Neutra to build him an imposing, isolated place overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The 1,000-square-foot living room had a balcony for displaying von Sternberg’s art collection, which included works by Modigliani, Picasso, Otto Dix, and Kandinsky. The bedroom had glass walls, and he insisted that the bathroom doors be installed without locks because “there is always someone in the bathroom threatening to commit suicide.” The house would later be purchased by Ayn Rand and, still later, torn down.

Before von Sternberg’s death in 1969, he wrote a typically veiled autobiography titled “Fun in a Chinese Laundry” (an ironic reference to an early silent comedy), in which he continued to play the part of the cold professor. He taught an eccentric course in film at UCLA; among his students were Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who found him personally fascinating and his swirling, darkly passionate aesthetic useful when they co-founded the Doors.

Despite the cooperation of his subject’s family and access to previously unknown archives, Mr. Baxter’s biography of this exceedingly fine artist and exceedingly strange man remains predominantly external: Someone with a horror of intimacy is an uncomfortable fit for such an innately intimate form as biography. Yet there is little doubt that this same obsession with secrecy was a wellspring of von Sternberg’s genius.

“Shadow is mystery and light is clarity,” he once said, describing the job of the director. “Shadow conceals—light reveals. To know what to reveal and what to conceal, and in what degrees to do this, is all there is to art.” For a particularly pithy artist’s manifesto, you could do a lot worse.

—Mr. Eyman is the author of “Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille.”

von Sternberg on DVD

Josef von Sternberg has been ill-served on DVD. The roster of available titles was greatly increased this year when Criterion brought out “Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg.” The films are “Underworld” (1927), “The Last Command” (1928), and “The Docks of New York” (1928). All three prove that von Sternberg had his vision of the deadly female in mind long before he met Marlene Dietrich.


Everett CollectionA scene from ‘Underworld’ (1927)

“Underworld” is a prototypical gangster film written by Ben Hecht, which features George Bancroft as a kingpin and Evelyn Brent as his moll. In “Docks of New York” Bancroft plays a coal stoker with a girl in every port until he meets Betty Compson, doing a believable turns as a whore with a heart of gold. It’s a character study about two people whose bruised but still beating hearts flourish amid some of von Sternberg’s most intense visuals.

In “The Last Command,” Emil Jannings stars as a former Czarist general, demoted to the role of extra in a Hollywood film about the Russian revolution, who recalls his own doomed love for a revolutionary (Brent again). Also on board is a young William Powell—before he developed the blithe, debonair pose that carried him through the next 25 years of his career.

Of the Dietrich films, the best version of “The Blue Angel” (1930) is the Kino set. This includes a very good copy of the original—and superior— German-language version, as well as the English-language version, in which Emil Jannings gutturally massacres his non- native language. But the prize is Dietrich’s pricelessly insolent screen test for the film.


Everett CollectionA scene from ‘Blonde Venus”‘ (1932)

The DVD releases of the other Dietrich-von Sternberg films tend to be hit-or-miss. Universal offers something called “Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection.” In addition to a couple of non-von Sternberg titles, the collection includes “Morocco” (1930); “Blonde Venus” (1932); and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935). Criterion also offers the magnificent “The Scarlet Empress,” albeit in a disappointing print. Unconscionably, “Dishonored” (1931) and the great “Shanghai Express” (1932) are unavailable on DVD.

Sadly, several other worthwhile von Sternberg films are impossible to find in any decent form. “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), an interesting later film starring Gene Tierney, can be found only in a cut version, which detracts from the director’s simult aneously majestic and sardonic sense of drama. Completely missing in action: “The Saga of Anatahan” (1953), the director’s enigmatic final film about Japanese sailors stranded on an island during World War II.

—Scott Eyman

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