The Devil Is in the Details

The Devil Is in the Details

On Film / Essays — Jun 24, 2018

Toward the end of his life, Josef von Sternberg choreographed a victory lap. He had not made a film in more than a decade—that was the remarkable 1953 The Saga of Anatahan, which hardly anyone had seen—and the reputations of his legendary films with Marlene Dietrich were either riven by controversy (Susan Sontag reduced them to a species of camp) or hoist on the petard of sentimentality, thanks to a long siege of Dietrich concerts that made audiences tear up to “Falling in Love Again,” in tribute to the valiant German beauty who had allied with the Allies and helped to shore up the home front. So he reasserted himself in a 1965 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, named for an 1896 Edison film he found amusing, though he might just as well have called it Bull in a China Shop, to underscore the disdainful rage he had nurtured over the years (no slight was too slight to repeat and reprove), swaddled in a world-weary grandiloquence, alternating fierce intelligence with cavalier baloney. He launched his own postpublication tour, vainly trying to appear modest in the face of wintry adoration, even demonstrating his unique way of lighting a camera shot on a couple of television shows. On Swedish TV, the host reminded him that the Swedish actor Warner Oland had worked for him. Von Sternberg’s instant response was to recall that it took Oland two dozen takes to correctly deliver the line “Good morning,” then reconsidered and added that he was a nice man who did everything he was told to do. He placed a high value on obedience.  

Perhaps the dreariest thing you can do as prelude to viewing and reviewing the six masterworks collected in this set, each restored to a gleam redolent of that with which it premiered almost nine decades ago, is to spend too much time in the constricted ambit of their maker’s narcissism. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that the overarching theme of Fun in a Chinese Laundry is his inflexible insistence that a film is the work of one solitary artist, Herr Director, and that those who labor on his behalf are technicians or empty vessels, recruited to realize his vision. 

Von Sternberg (the von originated as promotional affectation) doesn’t argue for mere auteurism, a term he would surely find useless in a world in which nearly every director with a style or a theme or even a body of work is presumed to be the author of his or her films and every film is automatically credited to its director. His preferred filmmaking metaphor was not captain and crew but puppeteer and puppets, or sculptor and clay, or painter and paint. He wore jodhpurs and carried a cane and dictated the shots (he ultimately joined the American Society of Cinematographers and removed the middleman), cutting (his films often lack credits for editing), art direction, costumes, and performances. He demanded compliant actors, men and women who posed just so and recited just so. When he writes, “This is not meant to be a denunciation of an actor,” prepare rather for an evisceration: “One who passes himself off as the most eloquent of men cannot grapple with a single sentence unless he reads it as if each sound were meant to be rolled around the gums like caviar.” As to writers, he resorts to misdirection or neglect: Jules Furthman wrote or cowrote at least nine of his films yet doesn’t rate a wave of the hand in Fun in a Chinese Laundry. 

It goes without saying that he couldn’t exist today, when directors depend on actors to create characters, and when actors routinely boast of resenting and refusing direction. For that matter, he should not have existed in the studio era either. And yet he did. The miracle of Josef von Sternberg is that for eight years, from 1927 to 1935, from the climax of the silent era through the evolution of sound, he had carte blanche (despite the restrictions of censorship and budget) to make pictures so demonstrably the work of a visionary artist that the most frequent objections focus on his aestheticism. He made movies as though they were a fine art, and they made lots of money. Until they didn’t, at which point his studio, Paramount, hustled him out the door. Even visionaries must be team players, and von Sternberg was a team of one. Still, however much we bristle at his arrogance, his films justify the worst of it, because there is nothing else like them in all of cinema—particularly the six pictures he made with Dietrich on Hollywood soundstages: erotic fairy tales where sex and love square off against infidelity and suspicion, and prostitution of one kind or another is pervasive (as who would know better than a film director). These films assault the senses and tease the brain. They are ageless works of art improbably produced during the Depression. Each generation discovers them anew because they continue to startle; they are tenaciously modern.  

Which is not to say that they thrive on consensus. Consider comments from two books that coincidentally made their American paperback debuts in the same year, 1983. In Cinema, the Magic Vehicle, Adam Garbicz and Jacek Klinowski declare The Blue Angel, von Sternberg’s first film with Dietrich, made in Germany, “the highest peak of his creative career, without a doubt,” and dismiss their Hollywood work as “run-of-the-mill spy films,” in which von Sternberg “frittered his talent away.” In American Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon assesses The Blue Angel as the “most marginal of Sternberg’s major films,” plodding and ponderous and a regression from “everything the director had done before or would do later.” Coursodon champions Morocco (the contrast is “complete”) for discarding the Ufa film’s “heavy-breathing symbolism” and “superficial naturalism.” In 1983, both views seemed to me overbaked; in some respects, they still do. The Blue Angel’s hot breath is superbly leavened with wit, ruffled underpants, sublime Weimar melodies, ingenious staging, and a subversive warning about repression. It is a classic of its kind. Morocco, however, and the five pictures that followed—Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman—were not classics of any known kind. They reinvent cinema as they reinvent place and time. Von Sternberg’s Germany was a real country; his Morocco, Vienna, Shanghai, New Orleans, Saint Petersburg, and Spain are dreamscapes made with crepe and spit, conjured from flimsy stereotypes filtered through poetic license. For me, they get better as von Sternberg grows bolder and shrugs off every kind of orthodoxy, rejecting narrative coherence in favor of emotional truths.

Jonas Sternberg was born in Vienna in 1894, to a punitively strict Orthodox Jewish family, whose patriarch left for America when Jo was two, bringing the family over five years later. They returned to Vienna for a few years but settled for good in the United States (Queens, New York) in 1908, by which time Jo was a confirmed autodidact, teaching himself the nuances of English and pursuing the arts; he prided himself on a certain erudition regarding painting, music, and literature. At seventeen, he left home, changed his name to Josef (defying anglicization and taking the first step toward a European persona), and found a job repairing film stock, which led to editing, projecting, and assistant directing, mostly with a company in New Jersey. During the war, he joined the Signal Corps and made training films; after the war, he apprenticed with the director Emile Chautard, who would later appear in small roles in his films. Following brief sojourns in Vienna and London, he landed in Hollywood in 1923. The Salvation Hunters (1925) proved his resourcefulness and pomposity (“Our aim has been to photograph a Thought”), but in the next three years he created three glorious triumphs of the vanishing silent era, Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York, the second starring Germany’s celebrated Emil Jannings, with whom he quarreled. Nevertheless, Jannings insisted that only von Sternberg could direct his first talking film, and so the director crossed the Atlantic with the understanding that he would choose the material and cast and brook no interference. His first and most consequential task was to find an actress who could stand up to the imposing Jannings.

The tale of how the cultured Jewish Pygmalion discovered his flighty Galatea is often told but never the same way twice. In later years, Dietrich, who was twenty-seven at the time, described herself as a mere schoolgirl corralled by von Sternberg after he ran out of professional candidates to play The Blue Angel’s Lola Lola, the chanteuse/whore who reduces Jannings’s schoolmaster to a cackling rooster. In fact, she had appeared in several silent films and was appearing nightly in the popular revue Zwei Krawatten (Two Neckties), where von Sternberg saw her and summoned her for an audition; according to her daughter and biographer, Maria Riva, she had the part as soon as he laid eyes on her. Before The Blue Angel premiered, he and his “discovery” were bound for America and Paramount Pictures. 

After a private screening of Morocco, during which she gripped the director’s hand in tense anxiety, Dietrich wrote him a note: “You—Only you—the Master—the Giver—Reason for my existence—the Teacher—the Love my heart and brain must follow.” Von Sternberg cleaned up her accent and molded her face with light, deleting the baby fat; he focused the picture around her despite her second billing, and created a fade-out scene that made Dietrich herself and not the character Amy Jolly a cinematic phenomenon, leaving civilization to follow her man into the desert. She told Riva that she had fought with him over the absurdity of her wearing heels, as Amy joins up with the camp followers, before discarding them to walk barefoot in the burning sand. She changed her mind when she saw how it played—underscoring the impulsiveness of her character’s decision, her willingness to endure discomfort for love. This was truth, not logic. Love is never equal, especially not in von Sternberg films. One partner is the lover and one the beloved, and Dietrich’s character is always the former, the active agent, so long as the beloved remains worthy of her. 

As a top-billed, established American film star, Gary Cooper thought the film belonged to him. Ideally cast as the handsome, even beautiful legionnaire Tom Brown, who has Morocco’s women at his feet, he expected to emerge as the hero. Every foreign-legion film has an attractive hero with a dubious past, a beautiful native girl with a dubious present, and a villain who wants to kill him and take her. But not this one, which nonetheless flirts with all the clichés. 

Amy has a one-way ticket to perform in a low-life nightclub. Instead of exploiting the image of Dietrich in exposed garters, the defining picture audiences took away from The Blue Angel, von Sternberg redefines her in a tuxedo and top hat, which is even sexier, especially after she takes a flower from a customer, kisses her on the lips, and tosses it to Tom, who had quieted the throng as she made her debut. “What am I bid for my apple?” she sings, slipping him her dressing-room key and commenting, “You are pretty brave . . . with women.” Von Sternberg understands the power of ellipses. Earlier, Brown is caught signaling a whore with his hands. The captain says, “What are you doing with those fingers?” Brown says, “Nothing . . . yet.”

Brown puts the flower behind his ear, inadvertently feminizing himself. Later, he will resort to adolescent boyishness, carving a name into a table, which wins Amy’s heart away from the wealthy, besotted, reliably mature La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou), often thought to be a stand-in for von Sternberg (a la for a von). In their later films, Dietrich will choose the older man, but only after he has passed the test of forgiving her trespasses. Amy tells Tom that women are brave too: “But we have no uniforms, no flags, and no medals when we are brave, no wound stripes when we are hurt.” Tom, no longer the gallant, rejoins, “Anyone who has faith in me is a sucker.” She says, “You better go now . . . I’m beginning to like you,” and when he does, she chases after him, as she will do at the end of the film. It’s her chasing we remember, not his fleeing.

“One of von Sternberg’s favorite verbs in explaining his method was emotionalize.

Von Sternberg favors and carefully prepares long takes, which are broken up by three kinds of movement: long lateral shots from side to side; omniscient shots as the camera floats on a boom; and shots where movement is directed toward or away from the static camera, used often in Morocco and The Scarlet Empress. One of von Sternberg’s favorite verbs in explaining his method was emotionalize. His celebrated technique for achieving emotionalization was a combination of fastidious lighting, which emphasizes shadows, and a background inextricable from the foreground, surrounding the action in bric-a-brac, veils, masks, statues, streamers, confetti, animals, crowds. He frames his shots and edits them to indicate the illusion of life beyond the frame. 

In all the von Sternberg–Dietrich Hollywood films, she manipulates men and ultimately does something you don’t expect. Why fling herself into the desert; or give up her life in Dishonored; or sacrifice herself to a rapist in Shanghai Express; or do most of the things she does in Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman? The answers are the films themselves, and how we experience them, but they are complicated, after the first, by von Sternberg’s decision never again to challenge her with a major Hollywood male star like Gary Cooper.

In Dishonored, she plays a First World War spy, X-27, formerly Marie, recruited in Vienna after another prostitute has drowned herself and she declares herself neither suicidal nor afraid of death. In the end, she will commit suicide by firing squad, having allowed the escape of her opposite number, played with toothy indulgence by Victor McLaglen, no one’s idea of a matinee idol. Is it because she respects his patriotism (there is no indication of a great love, just affection); or is it because, unlike the boyish suitors in the other films, he holds his own with her; or is she sick of betraying others to their deaths? Or is it that, having mastered spycraft under the tutelage of her controlling agent, she wants to reclaim control over her fate? Awaiting death, she straightens her seams and touches up her lipstick, dressed as a whore, the role she played when she served her countrymen instead of her country. All she wants in her last days is a well-tuned piano, which indicates the potential for a backstory—she plays better than an amateur—that we will never learn. (Is the origin autobiographical? The young Dietrich hoped to be a concert violinist until she contracted tendonitis.) It also introduces an influential plot device, music as secret code, seven years before Hitchcock used it in The Lady Vanishes

Often underrated, Dishonored is filled with incident, not least Dietrich’s hilarious impersonation of a plump, agile, and almost unrecognizable peasant maid. It introduced or perfected several of von Sternberg’s characteristic tropes: the masquerade, the childish use of noisemakers as a substitute for dialogue, the vertical rather than horizontal staging of scenes, the use of flashback, the protracted dissolve, which instead of moving the story forward holds the viewer at an impasse between past and present and between present and future. We leave where we were with some regret until the dissolve is completed and we find ourselves in a brave new place. His growing command is especially evident in the lighting of Dietrich, each plane of her face fetishized, her cheeks so hollow she was said to have removed her molars. The visual pleasures are constant: the interiors are rigorously convincing, and the putative exteriors are brilliant hallucinations. There is also a black cat worthy of Poe.

Shanghai Express, with its “notorious coaster,” Shanghai Lily, is often singled out as a favorite in the series. Visual profligacy is on view from the opening, with its astonishing and delirious crowd sequence, and if this isn’t the first film to set most of its action on a train, it is undoubtedly the one everyone else imitated in the years to come. Von Sternberg credited the inspiration for Furthman’s script to a one-pager by Harry Hervey, but readers of Guy de Maupassant will recognize it as a variation on the much-filmed story “Boule de Suif”; the satire is muted (except for pointed references to white racists on board), the prostitute is way slimmed down, and the scoundrel (Warner Oland) is treated with a measure of empathy, but the setup is essentially the same. Once again, lighting and makeup give us a new Dietrich to explore, this time with eyes so beady they seem to ricochet in their sockets. And while Clive Brook may be a stick, no woman was ever more desirably slinky than Anna May Wong. The music during the Shanghai arrival is fine, and a maxim is offered to those who want one, delivered by a priest: “Love without faith is like religion without faith.” 

If Morocco, Dishonored, and Shanghai Express offer an informal trilogy bound by fascination with the eternal feminine, the next three films explore violent pathology in which sacrifice is supplanted by a cruel if often diabolically funny tussle between remorseless sadism and miserable capitulation. Audiences don’t need censors to warn them away; audiences do their own censoring, demanding happy endings and comic-book heroics and embraceable glamour. Von Sternberg now sailed heedlessly onto thin ice, determined to crack it wide open and release dark undercurrents.

Blonde Venus and The Scarlet Empress are the entries that most frequently drop jaws. In the former, Dietrich’s Helen enters the frame as a naked Lorelei disporting in a lake, voyeuristically pursued by Ned (Herbert Marshall). He’s the good guy—or at least the object of sympathy when, having become his New York hausfrau and the mother of their son, she leases herself out to show business (always a sexually mercantile industry in von Sternberg’s cosmos) and particularly to Nick (a tough-guy Cary Grant, long before he became “Cary Grant”) to pay for her now gravely ill husband’s treatment, for which he must go to Europe. That’s for starters, and you can predict how it will end, even as she declares her love for Nick before returning to the hearth. (Note that in her first departure from family, she kisses her husband on the cheek and her son on the lips.) What you cannot anticipate is her utter degeneration in southern flop joints, more feverish than anything in Tennessee Williams. Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes (in Crime and Punishment), “In poverty you can still preserve the nobility of your innate feelings, while in destitution you never do and no one does.” Von Sternberg goes the distance in defining that distinction, and only pretends to cheat in the denouement, a happy ending that makes no one happy, especially not audiences. Blonde Venus was a fantasy too far; its failure marked the beginning of the end for von Sternberg–Dietrich. 

The Scarlet Empress, a box-office disaster loosely and irreverently based on the life of Catherine the Great, is a film conceived in hysteria, basted in humiliation, fraught with sexual horror, and unfolded in narrative rebellion. Not since the silent era had an epic relied on so many title cards; remarkably, most of the action that would animate a conventional history film is relegated to those cards, while the movie action is taken up with discrete anecdotes that are relatively petty, private, terrifying, and populated by more gargoyles (small ones clutching candles, large ones clutching their heads) than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Even the marriage ceremony is treated not as a royal wedding but as a chamber piece, composed of isolated faces rapt with anticipation. And even when the mood suggests comedy, laughs are strangled in their crib; try to laugh when your jaw drops—as, for example, when young Princess Sophia (Maria Riva) imagines a montage of torture the likes of which would not be seen again until Roger Corman filmed The Pit and the Pendulum in 1961, or when a doctor puts his head under the dress of the adult Sophia, renamed Catherine (Dietrich), to certify her intactness and emerges without his wig. The film is resolutely anti-Russian (unfairly so in depicting Catherine), but it feels strangely contemporary. Can it be because the grand duke is played by the great Sam Jaffe as a grinning moron, head pecking jerkily like that of a hungry bird, marooned in a permanent adolescence of toy soldiers and the care of a stormy guardian-mistress; or because when his mother dies and he rises to the throne, he issues greedy, power-mad proclamations that read like tweets; or because he is executed in a coup arranged by his triumphant wife in a white pantsuit? 

A thoroughly spectacular film, The Scarlet Empress doomed the famous team. Von Sternberg owed another film to Paramount, and, thankfully, the studio allowed him to go to hell in a handbasket of his own devising. The Devil Is a Woman was underappreciated by almost everyone other than Dietrich, who loved the way she looked, especially in her first appearance, gorgeously assured, gamely flirting behind a scrim of balloons that von Sternberg himself exploded with BBs, and subsequently sporting an unrivaled variety of spit curls. If The Scarlet Empress is a black-and-white film showing black-and-white costumes and decor, The Devil is a work plotted in shades of gray, set in a “Spain” so outlandish (significantly, the score is Russian, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Caprice) that Spain tried to prevent its distribution there. The carnival scene is a chiaroscuro marvel, crafted with streamers and confetti and so cluttered there are moments when it suggests a movable Jackson Pollock. 

The film is obstinately innovative. Six years before Orson Welles fused flashbacks and unreliable narration in Citizen Kane, launching an avalanche of flashbacks within flashbacks culminating in the contrary witnesses of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), von Sternberg was on the beat. Flashbacks had appeared in films almost from the beginning—and a few years later, in 1939, were adapted as the primary storytelling ploy by William Wyler in Wuthering Heights and Marcel Carné in Le jour se lève—but von Sternberg was the first to imbue them with the complexity displayed in The Devil Is a Woman. Half the film is given to Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) as he recalls to his young friend Antonio (Cesar Romero) his tribulations at the hands of the mesmerizing tart Concha (Dietrich). The film jumps back and forth from memory to the present with beautifully abrupt edits (no dissolves this time). Like Antonio, we believe Pasqual; like Antonio, we are surprised to learn that his story was intended to keep his rival at bay. We don’t know what we can believe of the repetitive tale, wherein she takes his money with a promised kiss, ruins his career and reputation, and lures him back again and again for more of the same. 

Reviewers noted an unmistakable resemblance between Atwill and von Sternberg, but it was a prescient resemblance, which would become more explicit as von Sternberg aged and grayed. Dietrich alone disputed this: “What? That ugly man who played the policeman is supposed to be Jo? What are these people talking about?” she asked Riva. “Can I sue these people?” she fulminated. “These little people, who know nothing, get paid and think they are professors . . .” She also resented the casting of Romero, an openly gay dancer she considered a lightweight, hired as a last-minute replacement for Joel McCrea, who rebelled against the von Sternberg autocracy. In this she is not alone; indeed, it might have been a stronger drama with, say, Tyrone Power or Gilbert Roland in the part, or even someone with the bearish authority of Victor McLaglen. But von Sternberg clearly wanted to play Antonio’s avid puerility against Atwill’s effete maturity. 

Who wrote this delicious farrago of sexual flagellation? We don’t really know. John Dos Passos gets credit for the adaptation, while several others are mentioned in relation to continuity. Some of it sounds like von Sternberg:

Concha: Have you ever seen him fight?
Pasqual: No, but I’ve read the reviews.
Concha: Oh, critics don’t value genius.

The story is based on Pierre Louÿs’s short novel The Woman and the Puppet, a fin de siècle Lolita, far more salacious than the film and not just because the latter casts the thirty-three-year-old Dietrich as Louÿs’s fifteen-year-old Conchita, who gives herself to the man she tortures naked but for a canvas chastity belt; she can be seduced neither by money nor marriage—only by ruthless beatings, to which the poor fellow has to be driven. Von Sternberg’s Conchita shows no inclination for the masochism she breeds in her suitors. She finally gives in to Pasqual, when his adoration is spent. 

After The Devil Is a Woman, the von Sternberg and Dietrich association was also spent. They never worked together again, and never agreed on how to document their story, professional or private. Why bother? It’s all there in the films.