Like its summer season of Frank Borzage films, the Moving Image’s current retrospective celebrates the work of an auteur who responded to the social upheavals of the 1930s with spectacles of escapist delirium. But whereas Borzage contended that all we need is love, Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) scorned such bromides. Cinema’s Great Artificer built a world in seven Marlene Dietrich movies that reflected the bitter knowledge that love pined for is more exquisite than love requited—and that the torch of eroticism always outlasts the cigarette glow of romance.
He literalized this metaphor during the fantastical, wordless wedding sequence in The Scarlet Empress (showing September 30 and October 1). As the young Princess Sophia (Dietrich)—the future Catherine the Great—waits to be married to the Harpo Marx–ish Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), Sternberg presents a screen-filling close-up of her face behind her wedding veil. As her eyes fill with tears of desire for the saturnine Count Alexei (John Lodge), who is seldom filmed without a phallic prop, a candle flame flickers in front of her face, refusing to go out. As if to emphasize the point, Sternberg moves in closer. A political animal, she takes his comrades to bed, never him—that Lodge is the studliest of the admirers in thrall to the Dietrich image makes him, ironically, an even more potent masochist than the Sternberg manqués in Morocco (September 23 and 24) and The Devil Is a Woman (October 6 and 8).
Sternberg was a vital force before the epochal casting of Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Among his silents, The Salvation Hunters (September 16), The Docks of New York (September 17), and Thunderbolt were formative social-realist works; Underworld (September 16) helped instigate the gangster genre; and The Last Command (September 17) was the first baleful satire of Hollywood. The Berlin-filmed Blue Angel may or may not have been intended as an attack on German bourgeois values, but it afforded the first incarnation of Dietrich as a mocking femme fatale—a Félicien Rops masturbation fantasy come to life—whose antisocial resonance would be perpetuated through 1940s noir.
The six quasi-surrealistic studies in exotica Sternberg then made on Paramount stages neglected narrative in favor of the light and shadow he cast on Dietrich’s frequently veiled or masked face and her fetishistically costumed body. His teeming, hyper-stylized re-creations of North Africa, Vienna ( Dishonored, September 23), Shanghai, Russia, and Spain provided a backdrop for his rueful meditation on Dietrich’s unobtainability—presumably the dominant theme of his own life at the time. In parceling out concupiscence, Sternberg was nothing if not democratic— the love objects in Morocco and Macao (October 8) are, respectively, Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum.
Sternberg was eventually fired from Paramount after an eight-year tenure, apparently too proud to admit that the crowd scenes in Scarlet Empress came from a silent picture by his boss, Ernst Lubitsch. His British I, Claudius was notoriously abandoned in mid-production and the last decades of Sternberg’s career were as unfulfilling as those of Orson Welles and Michael Powell. Though unredeemed by the stoic nobility of the protagonists in the Dietrich films, the ultra-decadent Shanghai Gesture (October 7) is worth the wallow, while Sternberg’s self-narrated, rarely shown swan song, The Saga of Anatahan (September 22 through 24), is remarkable in its plasticity.
Why see these antiques? Partly because it’s delicious to drink in their pageantry and feel Sternberg’s cold, cruel truths about love emerge from the abstraction. Partly because it’s impossible now to imagine such an arrogant, disdainful aesthete posing an alternative to modern Hollywood cinema (though Wong Kar-wai is one of his grandchildren). As Dietrich allegedly said after the partnership ended, “Where are you, Jo?”