Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood (Preview)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

A six-disc box set, including
Morocco (92 min., 1930), Dishonored (91 min., 1931), Shanghai Express (82 min., 1932), Blonde Venus (94 min., 1932), The Scarlet Empress (104 min., 1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (79 min., 1935). Blu-ray or DVD, B&W. A Criterion Collection release. 

Marlene Dietrich had boundless energy and a tireless work ethic, and one of the tasks she pursued most enthusiastically was singing the praises of Josef von Sternberg, the director who made her a star in the golden year of 1930, when The Blue Angel and Morocco had their German and American premieres. You see this in a note she sent after seeing Morocco for the first time: “You—Only you—the Master—the Giver—Reason for my existence—the Teacher—the Love my heart and brain must follow.” The rhetoric eventually calmed down; the message stayed the same for years to come.

Von Sternberg reciprocated after a fashion, but being a congenital grump, his praise was faint to the vanishing point. Dietrich is “no ordinary woman,” he mused in his 1964 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, describing her as a “frank and outspoken” person with “impressive poise” and “uncommon good sense which approached scholarship.” On the negative side, he complained at great length about her habit of giving him excessive credit, which he regarded as a passive-aggressive ploy for gaining more kudos for herself; once she saw the good impression produced by her humility, he claimed in grotesquely sexualized language, a “geyser of praise began to shoot, hot and steaming, on the hour and every hour.”

Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman.

As for the origin of Dietrich’s complex and magnetic public persona, von Sternberg said his great contribution was simply to recognize and mold her innate qualities. “I gave her nothing that she did not already have,” he wrote in his memoir. “What I did was to dramatize her attributes and make them visible for all to see; though, as there were perhaps too many, I concealed some.” They both understood that a canny balance of the revealed and the concealed, the manifest artifact and the alluring mystery, is the essence of the seductive star image they constructed and refined in the seven films they made together between 1930 and 1935.

The arrival of Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, a six-disc DVD and Blu-ray box set from the Criterion Collection, makes this an excellent time to revisit and reassess the duo’s collaboration. Each of their American productions is present in a crisp digital edition, and an accompanying booklet contains three well-written essays about the actress, the director, and the shifting currents of American culture and Hollywood practice. The first three films—Morocco, Dishonored (1931), and Shanghai Express (1932)—parlayed Dietrich’s charisma and von Sternberg’s stylistics into an irresistible package that countered the shocks of the deepening Depression with far-flung exotica, hothouse romance, and ornate spectacle. The second, less financially fortunate half of the sextet—Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—fell prey to the tightening Production Code, changing audience tastes, and the director’s increasing boldness in “rejecting narrative coherence in favor of emotional truths,” to quote Gary Giddins’s booklet essay.

Gary Cooper and Dietrich in Morocco.

It’s true that von Sternberg habitually favored excess over lucidity, but I think it’s more accurate to say that he cared less about emotional truths than aesthetic truths, synthesized reflections of an intuitive reality that could exist only on the movie screen. Commercially speaking, his quest produced diminishing returns, and his bankability never fully recovered from the declining popularity of his last three Dietrich pictures; although he completed several more films, he was largely “exiled from a Hollywood that had little patience for unorthodox talent, much less so when that talent had little ability to suck up,” as Farran Smith Nehme’s essay puts it. Dietrich’s career had better luck, prospering on screen and stage for two and a half decades after The Devil Is a Woman closed out the partnership.

Since the Dietrich pictures followed and built upon von Sternberg’s greatest silent films—Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928)—a quick recap of his earlier career is in order. He hailed from Austria, settled in New York as a teenager, and entered the movie business as a low-level technician and assistant director, adding the “von” so his name would look more important. He made his directorial debut in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, a no-budget exercise in poetic realism that prefigures the best aspects of his future work. The main characters—a man, woman, and child thrown together by homelessness and loneliness—find temporary shelter on the deck of a dredge scooping mud from the bottom of a harbor, a paradoxically unglamorous setting for the lofty artistic mission stated in an intertitle: “Our aim has been to photograph a thought.” Von Sternberg isn’t the only filmmaker to announce that agenda, but like others who have used such language (D. W. Griffith, Jean-Luc Godard) he gets high marks for ambition. The Salvation Hunters is a spare and introspective drama, and von Sternberg’s career took off when Charles Chaplin publicly admired it. His subsequent films confirmed his ability to compensate for narrative flimsiness with expressive lighting and ingenious visual design. As film scholar Homay King observes in a Criterion video essay, seeing a movie like Shanghai Express for the plot would be like going to an action movie for the script.

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich during shooting of The Blue Angel. Courtesy of Photofest.

Dietrich was a mildly successful stage and film performer in her native Germany when von Sternberg, visiting Germany to direct The Blue Angel at the behest of producer Erich Pommer, saw her in a revue titled “Two Neckties” and offered her an audition, whereupon she piqued his curiosity by her evident lack of interest in being discovered or even noticed. Plunging into his role as Pygmalion to her Galatea, he signed her, gave her diet, exercise, and locution programs to follow, and set about crafting her screen persona, mobilizing various traits—most notably a smoldering sexuality and an audacious gender ambiguity—that she made very much her own even though these qualities were already widespread in German entertainment of the day. On the night The Blue Angel premiered in Berlin, she and von Sternberg were already en route to Hollywood and Paramount Pictures, where she was welcomed as a promising competitor to MGM’s most luminous female star, Greta Garbo…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1