Jo, where are you? The silent presence: He made her, she made him. Without him, Marlene Dietrich thrived; without her, Joseph von Sternberg vanished. By David Thompson
Few can recall today the films Von Sternberg made before and after Dietrich. He is often confused with that other great maverick director of modest Jewish origin, Erich von Stroheim (both men grew up in Vienna, adopted a falsely Aryan 'von' in their name, and affected an imperious stance on the set). Sternberg (whose real name was Jonas) settled in the New World in 1908. He worked at various jobs, including in a millinery store, which may account for the love of fabrics, veils and nets in his films. Eventually, he worked his way up by repairing damaged films - to editor, to assistant director, and then to making his first film independently in 1924, The Salvation Hunters. An uncharacteristically realistic drama of low life in the docklands, it jump-started his career as a director, first with MGM and then Paramount. By the time Berlin beckoned, he was already famous from such silent films as Underworld, The Last Command and Docks of New York.
Von Sternberg's films are remarkable for their visual beauty, achieved at the expense of dramatic drive or verisimilitude. He believed that the story didn't matter (the plots are beyond cliches, set in exotic lands of the imagination), that all the characters were aspects of his own personality, and that the ideal film would be entirely artificial. He wanted total control over all the elements, not just the photography and editing, but every inflection and movement of the actors. On The Scarlet Empress, he even insisted on conducting the musical score. These are hardly the imperatives that would endear any director to the Hollywood studio system, yet Paramount endured his indulgences - while he was tied to his star.
According to his notoriously unreliable memoirs, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Von Sternberg first saw Dietrich in a stage revue, Zwei Kravatten (Two Neckties), and recognised the embodiment of insolence and beauty that he was searching for.
The image of Dietrich was gradually refined through the films, from the earthy, uncut gem of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel to the hard-surfaced jewel of Concha in The Devil Is a Woman. It was an image that Von Sternberg seemed unable to escape. When, in 1933, Dietrich had to make Song of Songs with Rouben Mamoulian, on the first day of shooting she took the microphone and whispered, 'Jo, where are you?' According to Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, who was witness to this apocryphal-sounding event, Dietrich sought out Von Sternberg, who was by now low on the list of her regular lovers and would vanish to distant islands to escape his obsession for her. His advice was for her to study their films, which she did to the point where she eventually felt able to light her own face. From this moment on, Von Sternberg's power in Hollywood was severely weakened.
The post-Dietrich period saw a sad succession of failures. In 1937, he took up Alexander Korda's offer to direct Charles Laughton in the epic I Claudius at Denham Studios. After two months of shooting, the film was closed down. After this disaster, Von Sternberg suffered a nervous breakdown.
Following a spell in the wilderness, and demeaning posts such as colour consultant on Duel in the Sun, hope came in the shape of Howard Hughes. According to Nicholas von Sternberg, his father was promised anything he wanted, as long as he first made Macao and Jet Pilot.
In the end, Macao was mostly reshot by Nicholas Ray and Raoul Walsh, while Jet Pilot was released six years after shooting, because Hughes wanted retakes to update the jets that he himself was manufacturing. Jet Pilot remains chiefly interesting for the way Von Sternberg lights Janet Leigh. Clearly inspired by her beauty, and working for the only time in colour, he luxuriates in the contours of her face, and clothes her in a gold satin number that rivals Dietrich's once formidable wardrobe.
For his last film, The Saga of Anatahan, Von Sternberg found a Japanese Dietrich. The film was his favourite and took his working methods to the extreme: a lovingly lit leading lady, a studio- bound, synthetic environment and total control (the dialogue is spoken over in a narration by Von Sternberg himself). Partly self-financed, it was released in 1953, and has rarely been seen since.
Perhaps, as Maria Riva suggests, Von Sternberg was not just a victim of the Dietrich split, but also of having refined a film language for which the commercial cinema no longer had any interest. His obsession for lighting and detail, the slow pace of his films, with their long dissolves and narrative absurdities, belong to an aesthetic derived from the silent era.
He is remembered in one contemporary tome on American cinema as 'making a series of deplorable films, each more stupid than the last'. There has been much more sympathetic writing since, but most of it is long out of print. It's about time that the dust was blown off the reputation of one of the cinema's true poets.
A 'Late Show' special, 'Josef von Sternberg - the Man Who Made Dietrich' is on BBC 2 on Monday 30 May
BBC 2's Von Sternberg season
begins with 'Dishonoured' 12.15pm
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