Reading Joseph Aisenberg’s excellent piece (below) I’m compelled to offer my understanding of the great Von Sternberg’s stylistic obsessiveness, especially since it’s something I understand and share. (This began as a reply post, but it got sooo long). Please read Aisenberg’s discussion of THE SCARLET EMPRESS below if you haven’t yet, so that my discussion of obsession will have some grounding.
If you know Marlene’s history you know she liked to sleep with a lot of different people, and broke the hearts of adoring males (and females) all the time when they realized they would never “own” her totally, and so if you want to keep a girl like that, you have to learn to share (which her husband well knew, as he archived all her various love letters for her), and that’s where masochism and sublimation comes in. Imagine being JVS and you’re basically living at Marlene’s estate, painting a picture out on the lawn and here comes Gary Cooper’s car and you know that you wont be sleeping with Marlene all weekend, and will just have to wait til she gets bored of Cooper, who is taller and younger than you, etc. Do you throw your canvas to the ground and have a fit? Get a gun and run around the estate like the thuggish gamekeeper in Rules of the Game? Neither one will get you anywhere but in jail or laughed at. The artist Von Sternberg on the other hand lives for that moment, converting the emotional energy via artistic sublimation, Sternberg’s painting merely becomes darker and more twisted… better, in short.
For a normal person such a thing can be unbearable, but an artist that can use that energy–sublimate and harness it into art–might even find it addictive. Luis Bunuel is another of cinema’s great masochists, and their link is forged by covering the same material in their last great films: The Devil is a Woman and That Obscure Object of Desire.
In each film a rich nobleman who can basically “have anything he wants” falls for a low class prostitute who proceeds to manipulate the hell out of him, taking his money and giving him blue balls in return, time and time again, for years. Marlene in DEVIL IS A WOMAN knows exactly how to keep this nobleman interested, by not just holding out sex from him but also flaunting her trysts with other men. Nothing engulfs a man in the hell of jealousy like watching a beautiful woman reject you in favor of someone far beneath your standing, though perhaps taller and more virile (though its better if they’re toothless old wretches, for full knife-twisting agony).
From a psycho-analytic standpoint it’s the controlling superego, which has been driving you mad with its unyielding imperatives, finally finding its nadir and so letting you alone for awhile. The superego relaxes because it simply cannot top the disgrace you are currently feeling. The needle’s hit the top on the “less than” Geiger counter and so, in a sense, you are free. A similar thing occurs when someone is naturally a worrier, all the time fearing some accident or attack, and then BAM! their house is on fire or they get in a huge collision and suddenly they’re calm, they’re in the zone, their worries have vanished because they’ve found a home.
It is in this sense especially that people with enormous power and responsibility, such as film directors, find themselves drawn to the freedom of submitting to masochistic domination (the most regular clients at bondage dungeons tend to be high level executives, according to my shady sources). When it boils right down to it, nothing calms the agitated mind more than watching its worst fears finally come true, over and over again, from the safety and comfort of a velvet cage, which recalls the sickly thrill of awaiting a childhood spanking.
Back in the sexually uninhibited days of Weimar-era era Berlin these things were all the rage, and Sternberg and Dietrich participated. This kind of kinky stuff had to be doubly sublimated to get into Hollywood movies, but its concepts fit in perfectly with the “submission” to the code and the way such an iron rule opened the door for passive-aggressive attacks on its dreary morality. Nothing makes vice sweeter than its prohibition! Add this to the very nature of cinema viewing (voyeurism) itself, and viola! Art.