The Shanghai Gesture bears a singular credit: “Directed by Josef von Sternberg, A.S.C.” For many years, Sternberg was the only director to have membership in the illustrious American Society of Cinematographers. Above all, he was an explorer of light—for most of his films, Sternberg was predominantly his own cinematographer, bringing faces, sets, and landscapes to light with the flick of a switch and a touch of genius.
Born into a poor Orthodox Jewish family in Vienna, Sternberg was brought to the U.S. at age seven, and after a rough childhood settled in Hollywood, where he managed to direct his first film in 1925. His breakthrough came in 1927 when Paramount assigned him Underworld, a thriller that scored critical and popular success. Sternberg’s seminal baroque take on organized crime, which spearheaded Hollywood’s cycle of classic gangster films, can be seen at Film Forum’s 18-film retro, which includes all the director’s major extant works.
The Docks of New York (1928), a complex waterfront melodrama of moral rebirth and one of the photographic glories of American silent cinema, was written by the brilliant Jules Furthman, whose partnership with Sternberg was to last through nine productions. Sternberg directed Paramount’s most famous import, the eminent German star Emil Jannings, for the first time in The Last Command (1928), a study of an impoverished czarist general who winds up a Hollywood extra. At the first ever Academy Awards that year, Jannings won Best Actor. Sternberg so impressed Jannings that on his return to Berlin he invited him to helm the actor’s first talkie, The Blue Angel (1930). The rest, as they say, is history—the film was conceived as a Jannings vehicle, but Sternberg’s casting of Marlene Dietrich as the vampish Lola turned her into a star overnight, and sparked the most interesting collaboration between actress and filmmaker in history.
The Dietrich myth was a monument to ambiguity, artifice, and extraordinary lighting. With the great costume designer Travis Banton, Sternberg created a creature of illusion, swathed in veils and feathers, monkey fur or black leather. His camera sees Dietrich through nets, screens, bars, cages, slatted shutters, sculpting the air around her. She’s totally feminine, except when absolutely androgynous. In Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931), her cavernous cheekbones catch the light—you have only to compare The Blue Angel‘s spherical-faced fräulein with the sleek creature in these movies to see what a little determination and oral surgery can do. In Dishonored, Sternberg’s most outrageous examination of the feminine mystique, Marlene is a patriotic prostitute enlisted as a spy by the Austrian secret service. Facing the firing squad in the sublime final scene, she flings away her blindfold and applies a last touch of lipstick.
Has anyone ever looked lovelier while sinking into the gutter than Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932)? A magnificent tearjerker, it’s the saga of a woman’s descent to oblivion in a New Orleans brothel and her subsequent ascent to cabaret stardom. In the unforgettable “Hot Voodoo” number, she emerges from a gorilla skin and—voilà!—she’s King Kong and Fay Wray rolled into one. The Scarlet Empress (1934) may be Sternberg’s masterpiece. An ocean of stylistic flourishes, it traces the rise of Catherine the Great from innocent Prussian princess to power-drunk tyrant. The great wedding scene, with its suffocating decor and elaborate crane and tracking shots, was apparently an influence on Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. It failed at the box office, as did The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Sternberg’s beautifully textured final film with Dietrich, set in a picture-book Spain.
The Shanghai Gesture (1941), his last classic Hollywood film, takes place in an elaborate casino, built like a circle of hell and populated by a dream cast. A fezzed Victor Mature gives the performance of his life as the reptilian, epicene Dr. Omar. Sternberg’s subsequent American films were infrequent and routine. The hothouse eroticism of his Dietrich period returned in his last movie, Anatahan (1952), shot in Japan and based on the true story of shipwrecked sailors struggling for possession of the island’s single female inhabitant. Received with hostility, Anatahan has since grown in reputation. Sternberg too. Before his death in 1969, he had the satisfaction of being rediscovered by a generation of critics who recognized his exquisitely eccentric vision of human desire.