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

As the cinema approaches its official centenary, so too do many of its great creators. One of them, born on 29 May 1894, is Josef von Sternberg. But his name is indissolubly linked with the star he discovered, Marlene Dietrich and the six films they made together at Paramount between 1930 and 1935 - including Morocco, Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress - and the film he made in 1930 at Berlin's UFA studios, The Blue Angel, which unveiled Dietrich to the world.

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

on Saturday

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road