JOSEF VON STERNBERG – POWER AND DESIRE

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Nowadays, after many years, no one has forgotten the great talent of Josef von Sternberg, who is rightfully considered one of the great masters in film history. His special contribution to the seventh art has made him officially immortal.

The king of noirs

When we think of a director like Josef von Sternberg, the iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who was discovered and launched by Sternberg himself and with whom she shot no less than seven films, cannot fail to come to mind. Because, in fact, according to many artists and critics of his time, no one knew how to valorise female figures as well as von Sternberg, who, in turn, succeeded in creating the right mixture of sensuality and guilt, oneiric and realism, grotesque and paradoxical, all with a sophisticated noir touch.

And of the noir genre Josef von Sternberg was one of the undisputed masters, to the point of being considered effectively one of the forerunners of the said film genre already in the glorious Hollywood of the silent era.

Born in Vienna as Jonas Sternberg on May 29, 1894, to a family of Jewish descent that was experiencing financial difficulties, the young man moved to the United States at the age of three, as his father Moses – a former soldier for the Austro-Hungarian army – hoped to find employment in the New Continent in order to support his family. The relationship between the parents, however, was not at all easy and, after some time, Josef’s mother – Serafine Singer – decided to leave home, returning to Vienna with her children. This conflictual relationship between the parents was to influence the future works of the director, who would take inspiration from his family history for screenplays with disturbing implications, a true trademark of his cinema. It would be several more years, however, before Josef was able to return to the United States, even though he continued to feel, throughout his life, a strong nostalgia for his hometown, in which – according to him – he had spent the happiest moments of his childhood.

However, at the age of fourteen – in 1908 – Josef von Sternberg was back in America and, after attending Jamaica High School in New York for a year, he started working occasionally as a milliner and warehouse worker. The film world, however, was not long in coming and three years later, the young man began working as a handyman for the World Film Company in Fort Lee, later becoming responsible for editing and titling, thereby obtaining his first official credits in several feature films.

The career of von Sternberg – to whom, similarly to what happened to his colleague and countryman Erich von Stroheim, the particle ‘von’ in his surname was added later, in order to make his own name gain prestige, when he was about to find work for the various film companies – thus slowly began to take off. From 1919, he began working as an assistant for directors Roy William Neill, Hugo Ballin, Wallace Worsley and Lawrence C. Windom, also specialising more and more in editing, until he made his first film in 1925. We are talking about The Salvation Hunters, with strong symbolist and experimental overtones, where the main characteristics of his cinema could already be guessed. The film was well received and even impressed Charlie Chaplin in particular. From then on, Josef von Sternberg did not stop and started to make one film after another.

In 1927 it was the turn of Underworld, the author’s first true noir film, in 1928 The Docks of New York was released, and in 1929 the director finally made his first sound film: Thunderbolt. Yet despite the numerous acclaims he received not only from the public, but also from his colleagues (for instance, Underworld was Luis Buňuel’s favourite film), the decisive turning point in his career was yet to come. After returning to Europe for some time, Josef von Sternberg travelled to Germany and met and fell in love with Marlene Dietrich. With her, he made the now cult film The Blue Angel in 1930 (the first sound film ever produced in Germany), in which his poetics was finally mature, in which well-designed sets full of objects contributed to a successful sense of claustrophobia, in which clever editing cuts were enriched by sophisticated cross-fades to give fluidity to the scene and in which themes such as desire, obsession and power games played a central role. And the influences of his countryman Max Reinhardt, as well as of German Expressionism, are here more evident than ever.

With Marlene Dietrich, then, Josef von Sternberg made six more films, this time all in the United States: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). This is considered by many the most prolific period of von Sternberg’s career.

After the end of his relationship with Dietrich, the director began to gain less and less approval from Hollywood, which had often been harshly criticised by him in his films. Increasingly fascinated by Oriental culture, von Sternberg made relatively few films in those years, including, above all, The Shangai Gesture (1941) and Anatahan, made in Japan in 1953 and his last film. This film did not, unfortunately, achieve the success he had hoped for, but is still considered by many to be Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece, the summa of all the elements that made his style unique, as well as a feature film in which Oriental culture finally plays a central role.

Forgotten by Hollywood but not by his fans, the director did not make any more films, but simply released his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in 1966, three years before his death in Hollywood on December 22nd 1969.

Nowadays, after many years, no one has forgotten the great talent of Josef von Sternberg, rightfully considered one of the great masters in film history. His unmistakable style, where realism and oneiric created a perfect blend and where power, desire, guilt and subtle psychological games always played leading roles, has always, in some way, been emulated. His special contribution to the seventh art has made him officially immortal.

Info: the page of Josef von Sternberg on iMDb; the page of Josef von Sternberg on the website of the Enciclopedia Treccani