Josef von Sternberg | Underworld | The Last Command | Dishonored | Blonde Venus | Macao

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Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg is a great filmmaker, whose works are notable for their extraordinary visual beauty.

Sternberg's remarkable command of film technique has inspired several studies:

These works are some of the most detailed studies of film technique ever published.

Some common subjects in the films of Sternberg:

Militarism: Decor: Geometry:

Underworld

Underworld (1927) is a pioneering gangster film.

Crime

While Underworld is often cited as the first gangster film, its depiction of gangsters, crime and criminal life are often different from other films. One can contrast the criminal world in Underworld, with three other widespread models of the criminal underworld and gangsters in other books and films: SPOILER. Bull does kill another criminal. But not because the two men are criminal rivals, but rather because the other man assaulted Bull's girlfriend. This makes it different from the gangland killings in most later gangster movies.

Links to the Western

The early scene in the Dreamland Cafe, has rival crooks Bull and Buck Mulligan threatening to shoot it out with guns. The scene recalls the saloon shoot-outs in countless Westerns. It is like a Western drama, transposed to a modern speakeasy.

The Western imagery does not seem to be sustained, though. Later scenes of gangster life in Underworld, as far as I can tell, seem less in Western mode.

Technology

The early scenes in Underworld emphasize technology: However, as Underworld goes on, such technological aspects seem to disappear. Bull does note how hard it would be to break through the secret door to the warehouse.

The switchboard, with its elaborate machinery and several workers, also recalls the industrial locales in other Sternberg films. It is perhaps more a site of industrial age labor, than the pure exercise in technology found in so many crime books and films.

Clive Brook plays an educated man, who loves to read books. In Shanghai Express, he will play a doctor.

Friendship across Classes

Bull becomes friends with a middle class man he sponsors, Rolls Royce. Friendship between a tough working class man and a smooth, handsome, educated man is a staple in the stories of Dashiell Hammett, famously in "The Big Knockover" (1927) and The Glass Key (1930). In Hammett, such friendships often have homoerotic overtones. It is unclear if the Bull-Rolls relationship in Underworld does or not.

In Hammett, the educated man tends to work directly for the working class man, as part of his organization: the tough detective in "The Big Knockover" has the educated young man as his partner; the corrupt civic boss in The Glass Key has educated Ned Beaumont as as spokesperson and agent. By contrast, Rolls Royce in Underworld is mainly a friend, rather than a member of Bull's gang, although he does give Bull an idea for framing a rival. Another difference: in Hammett, the tough working class man tends to be much older than the young educated one. In Underworld, tough Bull is played by George Bancroft, age 44, while Rolls Royce is Clive Brook, age 39: much closer in ages. (Sternberg himself was around 33 when Underworld was shot.)

We see the first meeting of Bull and Rolls Royce, and their relationship goes through several stages. In this it resembles the man-woman romances that are nearly universal in Hollywood films. By contrast, the relationship of Bull and his girlfriend Feathers was pre-established off screen before the start of the film, and undergoes little development or change through the film. This suggests that there might be aspects of a "romance" to the Bull - Rolls Royce relationship.

Makeover

The makeover of Clive Brook from down-and-outer in the slums to fashion plate is spectacular. It draws on the considerable skills of both Sternberg and Hollywood with costuming. Such transformations preceded Underworld: see From the Submerged (Theodore Wharton, 1912). One of the most effective is in Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), in which a tramp turns into Andy Garcia. Also see: Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928), Alexander Gray in the "Dusty Shoes" finale of Moonlight and Pretzels (choreographer: Bobby Connolly, 1933).

The Last Command

The Last Command (1928) draws some of its plot inspiration from two films in which Emil Jannings also starred: Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry (1920), and Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924). It shares the word "Last" in its title with Murnau's film, and the plot of a man whose self esteem comes from wearing a fancy uniform, and being broken in spirit when he is forced to give it up.

Politics

Its portrait of the Russian Revolution of 1917 seems based on Lubitsch's portrait of the French Revolution of 1789 in Madame Dubarry. The Last Command seems completely indifferent to the issue of capitalism vs. communism, that rightly dominates most historical accounts of the Russian Revolution. It is not even mentioned in the film. Instead, it paints a portrait of arrogant, abusive aristocrats vs. howling, revenge minded, low brow mobs. This approach is a cliché of French Revolution books and movies, and seems to be nearly all the filmmakers are interested in. Sternberg and his colleagues clearly had no comprehension of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", or all that would mean for the 20th Century. They show Russia disintegrating into mob rule and violent anarchy, as if these were the worst things that could happen to a country. The concept of the Soviet Union as the birthplace of 20th Century totalitarianism was completely alien to them. So while they are in no way supportive of the Russian Revolution, they do not understand its consequences, either.

Herman J. Mankiewicz's titles also make many bitter references to the Czar's conduct of World War I. These are also in the pacifist tradition of bitter criticism of that war, that was popular in the 1920's. This criticism shows up in many, many American authors of the period, and has nothing to do with the subject of communism.

Sternberg sees Hollywood as being similarly composed of all powerful aristocrats at the top - the directors - and a proletarian mob below - the mass of poverty stricken extras. But his greatest opprobrium is reserved for neither the cruel, capricious directors or the brutalized extras, but for the army of yes men and assistants in between. These assistants toady up to the directors above them, and mistreat and are contemptuous of the poor extras below.

Film as an Industry

Sternberg's portrait of the film industry is unique, too. The operative word here is industry. Sternberg depicts it as an industrial process. The humans who enter it are put through a system as relentless as one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. From checking into the studio gates, to wardrobe to action on the set, they are both the raw material and the factory workers of the finished film product. In the 1950's Fritz Lang will open Clash By Night with a mini documentary about a fish canning factory, following the fish on their inexorable processing from catch to canned food. A similar inexorable process of fate will grind up the human characters in the film that follows. Sternberg's film here as much of the same feel. However, Sternberg does not ascribe it to fate. The industrial operation of Hollywood filmmaking is clearly the product of human choices. Sternberg also repeatedly compares the film set to an army, with the gestures of director William Powell echoing the gestures of General Emil Jannings earlier in the film.

The chief visual motif of the actual film set are lathe constructions; we see many boxes, platforms and set fragments made out of thin wooden boards. This low tech construction is intermixed with high tech camera and lighting equipment. I have no idea how this looked to audiences in 1928: whether the wood looked as primitive to them as it does to me today. The overall set looks both very complex, and yet a bit simpler than the elaborate grid shown in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), twenty years later: my next major point of reference to what a film set looks like.

Story Structure

The Last Command is composed of Acts, and shows a well planned dramatic arc. The two opening sequences are essentially entrances: in the first, Jannings shows up as an extra in Hollywood, and arrives at a film studio to work on a picture; in the second, Jannings arrives as a Russian general to review troops in 1917. The mid section of the picture then follows, focusing on Jannings' affair with Evelyn Brent, heroine of three Sternberg films, and already a veteran silent actress. Then come the two dramatic climaxes. In the first, Jannings encounters the Russian Revolution on and near a train. This is one of Sternberg's great set pieces. Next comes a flash forward to modern times, and Jannings' work on the picture within a picture. This second climax is almost as spectacular as the first, and brings the film to a remarkable end. Both of the climaxes are the most emotion laden parts of the film.

Camera Movement

Sternberg's use of camera movement in The Last Command is more sporadic than in other directors with his pictorial skill. There are some spectacular camera movements, but the majority of the shots are static compositions. The traveling shots tend to be forceful, intense, fast moving progressions along a straight path: down a banquet table, a review pass a line of troops, a track pass a mob. They tend to be done for an intense emotional effect, an effect of delirious force, and to be part of dramatic climaxes for a scene. They are part of an over all emotional plan of a scene which tends to include many static camera setups. They do not tend to be visually exploratory, as they are in George Cukor, or a consistent way of looking at the world, as in Mizoguchi or Murnau. Instead, camera movement is part of Sternberg's film language, something he can deploy apparently at will. Later Sternberg films, such as Blonde Venus, will employ camera movement more systematically. Such works are the models for the later films of Mizoguchi Kenji and Max Ophuls, and the fountainheads of their style.

Composition: Vertical Lines

Sternberg's style of composition here centers around jutting vertical lines. Often times these are the Russian soldiers in the film, standing stiffly erect. Sternberg is good at grouping these to form series of separate vertical lines throughout the shot. Another shot shows the Hollywood extras making up as soldiers in the dressing room, each next to his rifle; the shot is a riot of vertical rifles standing straight up, with bayonets pointing skyward on each gun.

Dishonored

Dishonored (1931) is a spy story of World War I. Its plot somewhat recalls that of Rex Ingram's Mare Nostrum (1926). Both films focus on a beautiful woman who spies for the Austrian-German side; both are ultimately based on the real life story of Mata Hari, the glamorous spy. In both films the woman is executed by firing squad, also like the real life Mata Hari. Both include a similar incident in which she insists on being shot while wearing her glamorous clothes, calling them "the uniform in which I served my country". Sternberg's disciple Curtis Harrington will also make an outstanding film entitled Mata Hari (1985), thus completing the cycle.

Sternberg's dramatic sense often recalls that of Ingram in general. Both directors' films mix delirious portraits of dramatic historical events, with personal romantic melodramas. Both evoke intense emotion. Both follow events over long periods of time, with many changes of fortune for their characters. Both directors visit many exotic locations. The slow paced pictorialism of both directors is somewhat similar, although Sternberg is a much greater creator of images. Both have similar heroes in their films: these tend to be glamorous macho men wearing fancy military uniforms. Antonio Moreno's sea captain in Mare Nostrum anticipates such uniformed Sternberg heroes as Gary Cooper in Morocco (1931) and Clive Brook in Shanghai Express (1932). Sternberg's heroes will be overwhelmingly attracted to the heroines of those movies, just as Moreno is in Mare Nostrum.

Mare Nostrum has a forceful pacifist message, and a mountain of guilt and angst for its hero. It is in the tradition of such scathing looks at World War I espionage as Frances Marion's The Love Light (1921), a grim film in which romance is also sordidly betrayed by espionage activity. By contrast, Sternberg's film is much more light hearted. Consequently, Sternberg's film is a lot more fun, even if it is much less politically insightful. Still, the pacifist orientation of Mare Nostrum is consistent with the anti-war commentary in Sternberg's The Last Command, and Sternberg's distaste for the war lords in Shanghai Express. Both Sternberg and Ingram employ satire to convey the distaste and disgust they feel for people who conduct wars.


Blonde Venus

Feminism and Women's Problems

Blonde Venus (1932) is structured as an expose of the problems faced by women. We see lecherous men, harassing employers, men who live off women financially, men who hire women to be their mistresses, courts who take children away from adulterous women, police who hound women in custody battles, and a self righteous male world that sees little value in women or their activities. Such a feminist point of view returns strongly in Mizoguchi.

Blacks

Blonde Venus contains far more black people than any other Sternberg film. The film takes place all over the United States, from New York City to Galveston, and everywhere that Marlene Dietrich goes she encounters black people. None of the blacks is highly educated, or members of a professional class, so the film does not have much in common with modern depictions of African-Americans. However, the black people in the film are some of the most sympathetically depicted in any 1930's movie. They are shown as kind hearted, shrewd, skilled, hard working and highly energetic. All of this is in welcome contradiction to the stereotypes of blacks that often appeared in old Hollywood movies.

The depiction of blacks has much in common with Sternberg's sympathetic depictions of working women in An American Tragedy and Macao. Both groups are seen as a working proletariat, a group of hard working people at the bottom of the social ladder. Neither has much money or power, and none have any upper class mannerisms.

Camera Movement along Paths

This film features several long camera movements tied to architecture. In these Marlene Dietrich moves slowly along a staircase, aisle or corridor, while the camera tracks her. She and the camera follow a path. Often there are elaborate objects in front of the camera's view, such as the palms in the musical number XXX. The background is also most elaborate and complex.

Sternberg tends to move his camera in both directions along this path:

One can see such similar bi-directional tracks along staircases in filmmakers Sternberg influenced, such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls.

Episodic Story Structure

The episodic structure of Blonde Venus also returns in Ophuls and Mizoguchi. The events take place over many months or even years, and represent different stages in the heroine's life. This is a familiar structure in the work of these Sternberg disciples.

Backgrounds

The backgrounds and walls in Blonde Venus and many other Sternberg films are extremely complex. Often, nearly every square inch of the walls are covered by objects. These form complex visual patterns. For example, the agent's office is full of framed show biz pictures. Their endlessly repeating rectilinear compositions recall the geometric paintings of Mondrian. They also anticipate the rectilinear compositions of Ozu. Each photo is of a different size, and they are arranged in a complex irregular pattern on the wall.

Similarly, the dressing room is full of women's costumes on the wall. These are hanging on hooks, sitting on shelves, and just leaning against the wall, including one prop on a long pole. Cary Grant picks up and manipulates this pole: it recalls all the similar long rifles and bayonets used by the male extras in The Last Command. Such poles are phallic symbols. Mizoguchi will similarly include a long fishing pole in Osaka Elegy (1936). The women's costumes all have a 3D effect, although they are nearly flat, and mainly parallel to the wall. This is the equivalent of a frieze, a combination of 3D effects with a basically 2D surface. Cubist artists, such as Picasso, and their Russian Constructivist heirs had made the frieze one of the most popular formats of early Modern Art. Such friezes show up in many sets in Blonde Venus, including the night club set, and the heroine's apartment.

Abstraction

The night club where Dietrich sings "Hot Voodoo" is similarly festooned with every possible decorative object. Many of these are plants. When Sternberg photographs the club, the people in the foreground are usually in clear focus. But often times, the background objects are not. They instead form a complex pattern of light and shade, in which individual objects cannot be discerned clearly. Sometimes a plant shape will be clear, such as a palm leaf or an aroid leaf, but otherwise, the entire background composition will be an abstract pattern. The abstract pattern is full of shapes that suggest night club decoration, but the exact objects will be unclear.

Even the plants in the foreground will often be in silhouette. The front of the image will be festooned with plant leaves, which hang down from the top of the frame. Sometimes these will be photographed literally; other times they will appear as black silhouettes. When silhouetted, they are still recognizable as plant shapes, but they have taken one step towards abstraction, becoming a pure outline of black. Sternberg loves objects in the foreground of his images, and this will be one of the most recurring features of his visual style.

Sternberg also includes portrait shots of Cary Grant, and of the night club owner O'Connor. Both of these are medium shots, and capture their subject men in languid repose, very effective for character building and moody meditation. Both images are full of pure abstraction in the background. The lighting effects behind O'Connor are a full piece of Abstract Art, made up out of light. The background is full of irregular streaks of light and shadow, complex arcs and patterns of light. It is an awesome effect. Some of this imagery is probably soft focus photography of objects in the background of the night club; the rest is probably pure painting with light.

Circles

A shot of Cary Grant and three other men seated at their table is also fascinating. A set of circular arcs in the background represent the elaborate night club set. We cannot see the composition of these arcs with any clear focus; they are bathed in Sternberg's shimmering abstractions of light and shadow. But we can see their essentially circular forms. These vertical circles are echoed by the horizontal circle of the table in the foreground below. The circular regions in the background are made up of many irregular objects, but some of the circular bands are clearly much lighter or darker than the others. The lightest colored rings are in a group behind Cary Grant. These are in a group in the center of the composition. To both their left and right are darker colored circular regions. It is in front of these darker circles that the other men are sitting, as well as the one female night club patron in the shot. Cary Grant also has extra light on him. His unique position in the lighter region highlights him, and makes him the center of attraction in the shot. His association with the circles gives him an almost magical quality. It suggests he has many exciting powers and personality characteristics. Sternberg's men often are given such glamorous abilities.

This circular composition recalls the circular casinos to come in Macao and The Shanghai Gesture.


Macao

Macao (1952) was Sternberg's last Hollywood film. It does not have a big reputation today. But Macao looks astonishingly beautiful, in the best Sternberg tradition. Sternberg's visual effects are a matter of composition. These compositions are achieved through careful set design, camera placement, and lighting.

Architecture and Circles: The Casino

A set with unusual visual fascination is that of the casino. The set is full of huge semi-circular arches, leading into other rooms. No matter where Sternberg points his camera, one or more of these arches will be in the picture, as its most prominent feature. This gives a mathematical, geometric element to the composition. They are usually contrasted with a large group of people seated around a gambling table in the lower portion of the image. These people are as linear in their arrangement as the upper arches are circular. Strong geometric elements are a cornerstone of these compositions. Also noteworthy in the casino: the circular opening framing Jane Russell and the musicians when they perform. This too is a circular geometric element.

The upper stories of the casino are full of railed openings, leading to the lower floors. I have never seen anything else like this, in any other movie. This means that when shooting on the upper floor, one is constantly seeing openings leading below, and circular arch openings leading to other rooms. Both the circles and the openings seem like female symbols. The fact that all the croupiers seem to be female adds to this impression, as does the way in which Russell seems to be in charge of the night club area and entertainment. This gives the entire casino a female aspect. The film's other chief female character, the croupier Gloria Grahame, also presides in the casino. We seem to be in a female realm.

Brad Dexter: The Boss and his Office

There is a man in charge of the casino, its owner, the villainous Brad Dexter, as Andrew Sarris dubbed him. He is rarely seen outside of his boss' office. One gets an impression of male owners and female workers in the casino. Sternberg is not trying to obscure business realities. Similarly, in An American Tragedy (1932) Sternberg took us to a factory where the managers were male and up to no good, and where the workers were all female. Dexter is mainly seen in this office. His position as owner is closely tied up with his self image and his identity. He is often seen hiring people here, and getting reports. In many ways, he is just as sinister a figure of power here as both the Jannings and Powell characters in The Last Command. Dexter is just as sensuous as Philip Holmes in An American Tragedy; there are suggestions that both men are weak slaves to their lower appetites. Both films serve as a critique of power systems.

Dexter's office is all rectilinear lines, in keeping with its position as a male enclave.

Venetian Blinds

One shot towards the end of the film is astonishingly beautiful. It shows light from the Venetian blinds being turned on and off, appearing and disappearing on the walls. This combines two motifs of film noir: the blinking light source from outside an urban window, and regular bands of light appearing on walls from venetian blinds. Only in this Sternberg film do I ever recall seeing both of these effects together. Only a director as visually complex as Sternberg might feel comfortable with such an elaborate effect, perhaps. Sternberg further enriches the image by having the bands of light being superimposed over other complex designs on the wall. This doubling effect will be used by Sternberg in other parts of the film. If part of a shot is seen through netting or curtains, there will be a complementary pattern on the wall behind the curtains, making the visual effect doubly rich.

Sternberg further elaborates the light from the blinds by two effects. These effects are purely geometrical, in accordance with Sternberg's fascination with mathematical patterns. Light from one of the blinds extends from the upper wall onto the ceiling. We see the angular bend in the bar of light formed from the projection onto the ceiling. Secondly, the lights near the door are projected on an angle on the wall, making them narrow at one end, and widening out as they project leftward across the wall and the screen. This is a beautiful and complex effect.

Camera Movement

Throughout Macao, Sternberg employs his old friend, the lateral camera movement. He is often tracking down tables in the casino. These recall the table tracks in many previous Sternberg movies. During the film's climactic series of chases through the streets of Macao, Sternberg often tracks horizontally through his studio sets. One beautiful composition after another is revealed during these tracks. There are often gorgeous patterns of light revealed, alternating with light shadows. The viewer often experiences a delightful sensory overload, as so much spectacular imagery flashes by in a glance. Only film can combine composition and movement in this fashion, to create such delirious effects.

These later scenes often employ curtains or netting; these were largely absent in the earlier sections of the film. The netting gets heavier and more elaborate. Finally, in the climactic sequence Sternberg drapes his entire harbor set with elaborate, heavy fishermen's nets. The effect is truly spectacular. It looks like some of the "environment" art of the 1970's and 1980's.

Costumes

Sternberg was noted for glamorous costumes. Here the women all seem to be wearing elaborate jewelry. Jane Russell wears a huge necklace during her first big song, that glitters in the light. Gloria Grahame also gets jewelry. During her second song, Russell gets a metallic dress that glitters with every turn of her body. It is remarkable and in the Sternberg tradition of elaborate costumes. Also highly unusual: the gloves half covered with jewels that Grahame wears while she is shaking the dice. I've never seen anything like them in another film. The jeweled regions make an elaborate curved 3D region on the back of Grahame's hands and arms. They add compositional complexity to the scenes. Close-ups in Sternberg do not necessarily lead to a loss of visual detail, as they often do in other directors. Instead, Sternberg often simply changes his scale, with an elaborate piece of jewelry or other object adding a visually spectacular quality to the scene.

The men are also dressed to the max. Sternberg favored clothes for men that suggested the dignity of their professions. His men in earlier films are often in officer's uniforms, clothes that suggest the last degree of refinement. Here the men are mainly in white tropical suits and tuxedos. These are extremely elegant and upper crust, in Sternberg's tradition. Sternberg's men are always exceptionally elegant and well turned out, yet dressed in clothes that suggest they are good at their work. Sternberg liked to shine a bright light over his characters, making them stand out from the lower lighting of the surrounding scene. He does this several times with the men's white suits, making them virtually flame out with whiteness from the screen. The effect adds to the elegance of their look.

Is Macao a Film Noir?

The short answer to this question is a cautious "yes", but with reservations. Macao was made in the film noir era, and it has some but not all of the characteristics of noir. First of all, Macao is a genuine crime film. This puts it squarely in the noir tradition. It is a film whose plot involves suspense for its characters proceeding from the crime elements: this too is noir like.

Macao has a lot of nocturnal photography, like other noir films. On the other hand, its photography tends to be in the Pictorialist tradition of Sternberg's earlier films. It is not mainly a John Alton like experiment in high contrast photography.

The central characters of Macao are neither criminals nor detectives. Both Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell play adventurers who wander around the Orient taking odd jobs. Both get involved with Dexter's schemes innocently and by mistake. Neither one shows the "obsession and alienation" that Alain Silver has identified as characterizing noir characters. The characters' competency at their jobs, and general control of their own fate, also marks them out as distinct from the noir tradition. Neither one is child like, obsessed or neurotic, and neither one looks like they are pushed around by forces they cannot control.

The setting of the film is a lot more exotic than most film noir, which mainly takes place in an American urban underworld. The next year, Robert Aldrich's World For Ransom (1953) will be set in a similar milieu to Macao, with its look at crooks in Singapore. Both films will look a lot alike, with Hollywood actors wandering through elaborate sets, filled with visually interesting chinoiserie. Both films show night clubs and living quarters; both films also show street scenes that are obviously constructed inside a studio - and which are nevertheless visually creative and enjoyable to watch.

All in all, it makes sense to regard Macao as Sternberg's personal take on the noir tradition, a cross between noir elements and his own tales of exotic adventure and romance. It is greatly to be pitied that Sternberg did not get more chances to make noir films. His great visual gifts could have enhanced the noir heritage.

The Dark Side of Gambling

The casino here can be compared to the one in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). After all, both are casinos on the South China coast, frequented by an international cast. Far from repeating himself, the casino here in Macao is utterly different. This casino centers on dice, whereas the one in Gesture featured roulette wheels. Gesture was about gambling addiction, a subject Sternberg treated very seriously. The roulette wheel symbolized the nightmarish power of such addiction, drawing its victims in and destroying them. By contrast, Macao is about the casino workers. They tend to be grouped around large tables, just like all the characters who confront each other over dining room tables in other Sternberg movies.

One might note that neither film would encourage anyone to gamble. Macao shows how crooked and fixed casinos are, and how they exploit people; Gesture shows their negative impact on people's lives.

Andrew Sarris has stressed how virtuous all of Sternberg's characters tend to be. Similarly, both the dialogue and characterization underline here that Russell has kept her virtue and her dignity intact through all the exploitative male owners and bosses around her.