The 100 Essential Directors Part 10

Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

by PopMatters Staff

5 September 2011


The final day of directors is here, Josef Von Sternberg through Zhang Yimou. German Expressionism, Dogme 95, contemporary views of Asian life, post-World War II malaise in Eastern Europe, and the alternately heartwarming and queer takes on everyday life in Baltimore all hold a space on today’s list. Did we forget your favorite director on this list?

Josef Von Sternberg
(1894 - 1969)

Three Key Films: The Last Command (1928), The Blue Angel (1930), Shanghai Express (1932)

Underrated: Though it may seem conventionally plotted, The Docks of New York (1928) offers one of the purest examples of Von Sternberg’s penchant for visual flair. It’s a film in which every location comes alive, oozing with atmosphere. Von Sternberg uses fog, shadows, and light in dynamic combinations to create a visual feast. His last silent film, The Docks of New York is one of the essential examples of how visually poetic silent movies could be.

Unforgettable: Marlene Dietrich’s “Hot Voodoo” number in Blonde Venus (1932). It’s hard to pick the most sultry Marlene Dietrich number, but Von Sternberg’s direction of “Hot Voodoo” is hard to argue with. Both sexually and racially suggestive, the pounding island beats give way to Dietrich emerging from a gorilla suit on a nightclub stage as Cary Grant looks on in delight. It’s a moment that is not as visually arresting as much of Von Sternberg’s work, but unforgettable for sure.

The Legend: If, as Vittorio Storaro described it, cinematography is writing in light, Josef Von Sternberg’s films offer a master class. Though heavily influenced by German Expressionism and chiaroscuro, Von Sternberg often transcended his contemporaries in terms of shear visual style. Von Sternberg’s visual lushness is most prominently in service of mood; all of his films are atmospheric, using mist, fog, and light to set the tone for his films.

Though born in Vienna in 1894, Von Sternberg lived most of his childhood in the New York City and New Jersey areas and broke into the film industry with his first feature, The Salvation Hunters (1925). His other three remaining silent films were hugely influential: Underworld (1927) is often credited with sparking the Hollywood gangster genre while The Last Command and The Docks of New York are the some of the purest examples of Von Sternberg’s visual style that would, along with German Expressionists, pave the path for film noir.

As Von Sternberg transitioned into sound films, he began one of the most storied director-actor collaborations. Starting with The Blue Angel (1930) and ending with The Devil is a Woman (1935), Von Sternberg would make seven films with Marlene Dietrich, and made Dietrich an international star. Von Sternberg’s earlier sound films were extremely popular due to their exotic locations and the illustriousness of Dietrich. Though often light in plot, his visual wizardry make the films the classics they are considered today. Von Sternberg’s influence on film noir lies not only his visual flair, but also his cynical male leads: portrayed by actors ranging from Gary Cooper to Cary Grant. Many consider the attitude of these characters to be an expression of Von Sternberg’s own cynicism.

Von Sternberg would be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars twice, for Shanghai Express and Morocco (1930), though he won neither. Despite the decline in the quality and popularity of his films after his final collaboration with Dietrich, his prolific decade long period encompassing his silent films and Dietrich work are enough to make him one of the all time greats. Joshua Jezioro


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