What version of Hollywood do we experience in Josef von Sternberg‘s American films?
The Austrian-born director made his greatest run of movies following his recruitment by Paramount in 1927, a partnership that bridged the gap between silent and sound, Europe and the United States, before ending with the studio’s bankruptcy in 1935. Von Sternberg made six sound films in Hollywood during this period starring German vaudeville and theatre actress Marlene Dietrich — Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935) all compiled in Criterion’s recently released Dietrich & Von Sternberg In Hollywood box set — each one an exotic, romantic melodrama about love, sex, and desire. This six-film run both challenged and helped define classic Hollywood cinema: it brought elements of European style to American screens, relished in the excess of new-world wealth and privilege while keeping a steady eye on the criminal and political underworld, and plumbed into sexual politics, class relations, and humanist themes despite the films’ dense expressionist style and fierce emotionality.
Through these collaborations, Dietrich and von Sternberg created six movies that complicate our ideas about filmmaking, stardom, and the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood as a whole. Today, they reveal to us an alternative image of Hollywood that reaches beyond the mythos we’re familiar with, and bristles against questions about the secret complications of industrial filmmaking: the impact of censorship, the meaning of auteurship, dueling commercial and artistic priorities, and so on. These six films open the veil of glamor and distinction obscuring the reality of Hollywood as it was and as it is, and yet in them we see reflected those very same illusions.
Von Sternberg’s place in the legacy of cinema isn’t at all decided, even still. Historians and critics usually classify him as a supreme aestheticist but a mediocre storyteller.
Sight & Sound remarked that his collaborative films with Dietrich were “the stuff of cheap romance, fake eroticism or historical fantasy,” while The Illustrated Who’s Who of the Cinema ranks the director among the best film stylists, characterizing his movies as “confections for voyeurs and connoisseurs of high art in the cinema alike.” This puts him in a difficult position in film history — especially now, when audiences and critics tend to engage more openly with dialogue and written narrative than the elements of visual storytelling. It’s true that his films are typically constrained by the narrative demands of the genre and the studio system (if von Sternberg lacked vision as a storyteller, it’s at least partially because of his keen commercial instincts), and it’s also true that having emerged from the silent era, von Sternberg intrinsically understood cinema as a visual medium, perhaps resulting in the prioritization of aesthetic over narrative meaning. But even this duality erases much of the complexity of the director’s work.
At their foundation, the six films of Dietrich & Von Sternberg In Hollywood are stark romantic fantasies laced with erotic tension, political violence, and of course, the director’s visionary style. What we find in von Sternberg and Dietrich’s Hollywood movies is an overall sensibility of hybridization: films that are unquestionably a product of the rigorous American studio system but simultaneously unburdened by the surrounding cultural experiences. American directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, and Howard Hawks made quintessentially American movies that spoke to American values in a very American way; European imports like von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Erich von Stroheim took on Hollywood ideals with oblique perspectives, to what were frequently enormously controversial but occasionally wildly successful results. Crucially, these six von Sternberg-directed movies were made just as heavy enforcement of the infamous Production Code, which instituted moral boundaries on the content of American films, was about to begin in earnest, which means they are surprisingly open — about sex, class, violence and, in a way, about America’s simultaneous obsession and repression of the same — as a result.
With that freedom, von Sternberg and Dietrich formed their characters out of a spirit of real, lived experience, even immersed as they are in heightened narratives. His characters are cursed with a volatility and the texture of human complexity that the elegance and charm of Hollywood often craftily scrubbed away. In Blonde Venus, Dietrich plays a desperate mother torn between loyalty to her sick, absent husband and the security of a millionaire suitor; in Dishonored, she takes on the role of a prostitute who commits treason to give her lover a chance to escape execution in the midst of World War I. In these characters, there’s a nuance in the motivations and behaviors that we don’t always see in Capra’s simplified moral universe or Ford’s steadfast belief in the indomitable power of American strength and freedom. Instead, we find the foggy, perplexing, intimate ordeals of our morally and ethically mystifying reality creeping into our fantasies.
Dietrich’s performances revel in the ambiguity of these characters. She plays a wide range of roles in these films that rivals that of the careers of the most versatile actresses of today, let alone the classic era of glittering debutantes and spotless heroines. In The Scarlet Empress alone, she transforms from a naïve and demure princess into a calculating and ambitious political power-player, while Dishonored takes her on the journey from prostitute to spy and back; she becomes a housewife in Blonde Venus, a love-struck chanteuse in Morocco, and the prototypical femme fatale in The Devil Is a Woman. Although she plays all her characters with much the same devilish sexuality and cunning, she brings a fresh charisma to each one, evoking charm as much as villainy, sympathy as much as scandal.
What’s most striking about all of these characters, though, is their emphasis on independence. When Amy Jolly (Dietrich) has all the men in the room drooling over her during a cabaret performance in Morocco, she remains cool-headed; a man of political power grabs at her tuxedo in front of everyone, and she embarasses him by pulling away confidently. In The Devil Is a Woman, Concha (Dietrich) plays with the feelings of men as gullible as they are wealthy to meet her basic needs and keep her out of grueling factory labor. In a certain sense, these are liberated women aware of the weaknesses of men. One of the more unappealing aspects of the movies is how the autonomy of Dietrich’s characters is consistently threatened by unconvincing love stories with lesser men, but even still, Dietrich plays her part perfectly, with coy and knowing glances that reveal her characters as the shrewdest person in the room at all times.
Not to be overlooked, either, is the audacity with which it took Dietrich to build a career out of risky roles in women-led films such as these. Until decades later, few other female stars would reach the same level of power in Hollywood by consistently wielding the darker parts of our imaginations about femininity, sex, and what it means for a woman to survive in the modern world. As an icon of old Hollywood, she stands far apart from the less adventurous crowd.
Von Sternberg’s taste for more sinister, flawed, and true-to-life characters also extended to the spectrum of cynical and brash male counterparts to Dietrich’s protagonists seen in these films. In place of the smooth bachelors of Cary Grant and Clark Gable and the plucky do-gooders of Jimmy Stewart — archetypes which would continue to sell in movie houses throughout the first half of the century — von Sternberg cultivated a cast of working-class brutes and pompous, moneyed chumps for Dietrich’s characters to take advantage of. There’s Gary Cooper’s aggressive and domineering legionnaire in Morocco, who manhandles a crowd of hecklers at Amy Jolly’s first cabaret performance in North Africa; Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero’s foolish duo of lovers in The Devil Is a Woman, who are tempted into a duel over the love of a woman who has already tricked them out of money and affection countless times; and Sam Jaffe’s Emperor Peter in The Scarlet Empress, whose petulant and idiotic demeanor leads to a coup against his reign. Unsurprisingly, none of Dietrich’s male co-stars during this period proved anything close to an adequate match for her effortless charisma or her smart brusqueness, except perhaps Grant himself, who plays partially to type as a coercive and arrogant millionaire in Blonde Venus, and can only barely keep up with Dietrich’s natural energy.
It can be hard to decipher how we’re meant to feel about some of the characters in these movies and their more problematic behaviors, but one thing is certain: each of them is so unlike the clean-cut protagonists populating most other Hollywood romances of the time. They share more in common with the anti-heroes of today and of the film noir era. Of course, over the next three decades, dubious morality would come very much into fashion in American cinema, but for the time, it was well outside the scope of typical Hollywood.
Confoundingly, that sentiment doesn’t hold true for von Sternberg’s most renowned contribution to cinematic lore: his incomparable sense of film style. In fact, von Sternberg may have done more than any other director to cultivate the chimerical perception of Hollywood glamor. Through dynamic costuming, jaunty musical numbers, bold and colossal sets, foreign locales, and the discreet art of cinematography — the director’s first love — von Sternberg excelled at nourishing fantasies of fortune and escape during the desperate years of the Depression. He intricately crafted fairy-tale visions of exotic countries — China, Spain, Morocco, Germany, Russia — founded on stereotypical understandings of their respective cultures, and filmed them with a lushness that none of his Hollywood contemporaries ever could. Even when his stories focused on the forgotten people of the world, he imbued everything he filmed with an awe-inspiring luxury and grandeur.
Dietrich was essential to this; it’s doubtful that any actor has ever been shot so perfectly as Dietrich by von Sternberg. In one of the special features included in the Criterion boxset, von Sternberg’s son Nicholas remarks on how his father shot the “landscape” of Dietrich’s face in close-up. Such grand language is justified; each one of those shots is breathtaking. Shadows etch onto Dietrich’s face, under her cheekbones and over her eyes, while the headpieces of her elaborate costumes frame her with unparalleled elegance. Hollywood’s mythologizing of larger-than-life beauty and sophistication began with those shots in these six films. The back of the Criterion box set itself refers to the movies as “landmarks of cinematic artifice”; what could be more Hollywood?
Of course, it can be difficult to enjoy these tricky films the way we enjoy most, but each of them has something to hold onto. One might forget the particulars of the narrative of The Scarlet Empress, but the images of the towering sets brimming with Russian icons, religious tapestries, and royal statues will never fade. Much of Dishonored‘s spy movie kitsch has aged quite poorly, but its dense, shadowy photography is timeless. Shanghai Express is easily the best-written of the set — relentless verbal sparring adds up to a love story with more dimension, in which the texture of the romance, which von Sternberg so often neglected, is tangible not just in Dietrich’s expressions, but in the entire dynamic of conversation — and even still its script is overshadowed by stunning shots of crowded marketplaces and smokey train platforms. There’s much to say about both style and substance in these movies, how they embrace and dismantle our understanding of American filmmaking on a fundamental level. Their mysteries may never be solved.
The truth is that it’s no easier understanding von Sternberg or Dietrich’s legacy today than it ever has been. What these films reveal to us, though, is a more complex picture of Hollywood’s genesis as a cultural titan than we tend to realize. In an industry still veiled in the folklore of its own creation, von Sternberg and Dietrich’s work and the context around it helps in no small way to clear the fog. Through their mystique, provocative sensibilities, and contradictory construction, they teach us that nothing is so simple as it appears on the screen. That’s doubly true in Hollywood.