The Criterion Collection’s boxed set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg was one of last year’s most notable DVD releases; I didn’t buy it for quite a few months, unsure about the return on the investment, but I’m entirely glad I eventually got past that. Von Sternberg is best known for the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich: tightly-controlled, magnificently designed and sustained melodramas of extreme desire. Morocco has one of the most memorable final shots of all time, as Dietrich abandons all she knows to follow her Foreign Legion lover into the desert (those who only know her through clips and parodies might be amazed at the vulnerability she conveys at times). Perhaps one of the most perfectly achieved works of classical Hollywood, Shanghai Express is full of gorgeous surfaces, a hugely stylized vision of lives and identities in transition, distilling the world into a receptacle for the play of love and hate, acceptance and rejection. Like much of von Sternberg’s work, it doesn’t suggest a worldview that’s in any way transferable to any other aspect of life: it’s pure cinema, possessing a unity of purpose that even now barely seems faded.
For the first half of the 1930’s, von Sternberg was on the top of the heap, but he faded fast. I’ve written before here about his 1935 version of Crime and Punishment, a fascinating, largely inexplicable fusion of elements that should never have been allowed in the same town, let alone the same movie. In 1941 he made The Shanghai Gesture, another remarkable piece of orchestrated madness, climaxing with some of the most transcendent excessiveness you’ll ever see. There wasn’t much to come after that, although his last film The Saga of Anatahan, made in Japan in 1953, is prized in some circles for its delicate artificiality: I haven’t seen it for almost thirty years, too long for even von Sternberg’s image-making to remain firmly in the memory.
David Thomson wrote years ago that “Sternberg now stands clear as one of the greatest directors and the first poet of underground cinema.” But although just about everyone knows about the Dietrich films, in the same way that they know about Mae West and Laurel and Hardy, I’m not sure they’re mainstream classics in the way of the most famous Hitchcock or John Ford films: as Thomson implies, they belong to the obsessives, if not the outcasts (von Sternberg was absent from last year’s TIFF top 100 “essential cinema” list). The Criterion release triggered a wave of renewed attention, somewhat ironically focused on a period in his career that had until then always seemed secondary to his primary achievements. I mean, I knew he’d made silent films, but it had never seemed particularly significant that I hadn’t seen them.
The oldest of the three, Underworld, was made in 1927: it won an award for best writing at the very first Oscar ceremony. On the surface, the film is a tough-minded gangster drama, and still retains some sociological interest in that regard. But in retrospect, it spends comparatively little time on shootouts and swaggering, and notably downplays the details of a climactic jail break to focus on sexual brooding. The main protagonist, played by George Bancroft, is as solid and prosaic as you could imagine, but you already feel von Sternberg’s affinity for the more abstracted and fetishized supporting characters. In the end, the gangster surrenders his own interests for the sake of a romantic ideal, as if the underworld in question were only secondarily that of crime and corruption, and primarily that of the burdened human psyche.
The Last Command
Underworld is great to watch, but its primary interest lies in the knowledge of who made it and what it led to. The second film, The Last Command, made in 1928, perhaps retains greater fascination on its own terms. A Hollywood director casts a fragile old bit player as a general in a Russian epic; we see in flashbacks that the actor really was a general, meeting his downfall in the Bolshevik Revolution, and that the director once crossed his path as a dissident. The film has some terrific satire on the filmmaking process, even at this early stage suggesting Hollywood’s surrender to mechanical efficiency at the expense of art (von Sternberg was famously difficult to work with, no doubt a major factor in his decline). It also feels entirely enthralled by Emil Jannings as the old man (he won the first best actor Oscar for this and other films, and went on to work with the director again in The Blue Angel) and by the grandeur of the fallen regime. In the end, the power of the general’s presence, even if ruled by delusion, all but transforms the reality on the film set; equipment and materials yield to inner visions, and again one feels von Sternberg’s growing insistence on myth and heroic self-definition. Despite his original intention of humiliating his former antagonist, the director-within-the-film ultimately acknowledges him as a great man, and there seems little doubt it’s the kind of greatness von Sternberg would have relished for himself.
The Docks of New York
The final film, The Docks of New York, is a close cousin to Underworld, with the same leading man and another climactic break-out from confinement. During his one night on shore, a tough-guy stoker gets married on a whim to a woman he pulls from the water, and must then decide the next day whether it was more than a mere night of fun. The evocation of the subculture around the docks (half the movie takes place in the same drinking hole) is still almost as compelling as that of On the Waterfront, even if conjured up in a studio; on this occasion, von Sternberg stays close to oppressive textures and challenging realities. This makes the ultimate appeal to romanticism, presented in an extremely pragmatic manner, all the more moving and compelling. The Docks of New York suggests how von Sternberg could have been a pioneer of sound-era social realism, something that helps to further appreciate the integrity (even if, as with many artists, you might consider it a crazy and ultimately self-defeating integrity) of the road he chose to travel.
The Criterion set also contains a fascinating interview (from Swedish television of all places) with the elderly von Sternberg - in which he explains, among much else, his continuing distaste for filming on real locations - and an extract from his unfinished 1937 version of I Claudius, which would have starred Charles Laughton. All in all, the new availability of these films confirms we’re living in a golden age of cinema, even if that’s based on opening up the artistic achievements of the past more than on those of the present.