“I would very much like to attract others into my world, but my world is not the world of crowds, though the crowds have often lined up before my world.”1
As if to make up for the no-show of their long-promised edition of Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), The Criterion Collection has released a box set of three of the director’s silent films that puts to rest, once and for all, the misperception that the creator of Marlene Dietrich was himself created in turn by Marlene Dietrich. The first of the films, Underworld (1927), reveals a filmmaker not just in control of his craft, but owning a full-blown visual aesthetic and an uncanny ability to pull delicately nuanced performances from actors who probably didn’t know they had it in them. The second, The Last Command (1928), is a star vehicle for Emil Jannings, in which the German über-actor, playing a former Russian general demoted by the Revolution and hard times to the rank of Hollywood extra, continues his run of humiliated figures of power. Here Von Sternberg’s orchestration of Jannings’ final mad scene is a powerful harbinger of Professor Rath’s public unraveling in The Blue Angel (1929). After watching the final film, The Docks of New York (1928), you’ve witnessed the blossoming of one of the greatest talents ever to haunt a Hollywood sound stage.
And one of the strangest and most conflicted. Von Sternberg considered himself an artist, not a journeyman or a craftsman, and what worse place than Hollywood for such an identity, which, in this director’s case, seems to have been of a delicately self-nurtured variety that, at the same time, housed a powerful drive. Like a dedicated, working solo artist — painter, poet, composer — von Sternberg felt the need to commit a private emotional universe of demons and angels to a medium, which challengingly in his case, happened to be the feature film.
Of course there have been many other directors who successfully married a personal vision to a Hollywood film. No one would hesitate to call John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock an artist. But von Sternberg appears unique in the number and nature of his achievements — movies that in retrospect have the ambitious, creative complexities of art house films — and in his slow, decades-long rejection by the industry that in the end put him back where he began in the twenties, with a small, independent production, the Japanese-funded Anatahan (1953).2
It seems a journey quite similar to that taken by that other American auteur manqué, Orson Welles, yet von Sternberg’s aspirations were not so blisteringly cut short as those of Welles. Von Sternberg managed to make something like 20 pictures toiling for the Hollywood machine, and more than a couple of them made money. From these a few have been lost and not all of the surviving were to his liking or ours — but the core of his work — the seven films made with Marlene Dietrich and these three miraculous silents — glisten from an acute, rarefied sensibility that magically survived as long as it did in an environment diametrically opposed to anything so personal, “artistic,” and therefore risky in the marketplace.
Included as a supplement by Criterion is an interview with von Sternberg for Swedish television made in 1968, the year before his death, in which a dapper but frail von Sternberg parries the interviewer’s remark about the widely acknowledged lack of “message” in the director’s films: “If I want to send a message, I’ll use Western Union.” Or write a book, which he in fact did, earlier in that decade.
As much as watching Criterion’s release becomes a revelation and deepening of one’s appreciation of this director’s entire body of work, a return to his lion-in-winter autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965),3 appears to bring not much of either, unless you hang in there. Despite the title, taken from that of an early Edison film, the book is neither fun nor likely to inspire the formation of many von Sternberg fan clubs.
The first-person voice the director assumes in his text is not a pleasant one. The tone is at once pedagogical and bitter, and his intent throughout seems mostly to settle old scores with actors who had taken exception to his direction and been vocal about it. In several long chapters, as the author delivers his defense, the rhetorical device most frequently lowered at uppity thespians is an excoriating sarcasm, which he alternates with the less subtle technique of direct insult, and it’s clear that these were the verbal tactics he employed on the set. After hearing him repeatedly calling his performers — even Dietrich — puppets in a shadow play, or grains of pigment applied to a canvas, you might begin to side with the actors.
In this vanquishing mode, so full of hurt feelings, he’s as paranoid as Richard Nixon. His chapter on Dietrich begins by praising her as a remarkable woman who was able to subjugate herself absolutely to his every instruction — the actress of his dreams — but then ends it by insinuating that her outspoken fealty to his methods was a passive-aggressive device to make him look like a megalomaniac in the press!
Yet, midst all the posturing and dither, he’s got a point to make, and it’s a simple one, which all the badmouthing of actors and condemnation of the movie industry actually mean to support. Works of art, he declares more than once, can be the product of just one mind and sensibility. So then, if a film is to be considered a work of art, it must have one artist in control of it — the director. Films are not, or shouldn’t be, collaborative projects; it’s the director who guides and fashions every aspect: cinematography, set design, art direction, music, and of course the direction of the actors, whom he sees as just part of the massive crew. From this angle, Emil Jannings was no more important than the key grip, and, actually, there should be no cinematographer; the director must always look through the lens himself.
Then, occasionally, albeit teasingly and obliquely, he will seem to allow us a view inward at the wellsprings of his creativity. At age 50, von Sternberg tells us, he went to a psychiatrist because he harbored questions about himself he couldn’t answer. But before taking him on, the doctor threw a challenge at him: “Do you think you know anything about human beings? Would you oppose finding out that you know nothing about them?” Von Sternberg answered that he’s not opposed to anything. Here the author ends the story, in effect challenging the reader to figure out the point of it himself.
So, what is he saying? That he’s indeed modestly admitting to knowing nothing about human beings? Yes, probably, but there’s no modesty involved here. Partly, this veiled disclosure seems to buttress a pillar of his aesthetic ideology, that the artist-filmmaker be hermetically sealed in his self-involvement. Referring to Georgia Hale, the lead actress in his first film, The Salvation Hunters, he writes: “What went on in the inside of her head, or, for that matter, on the inside of anyone’s head who was in that film, was no concern of mine, for I was much too occupied with the inside of my own.”4
Empathy with his actors’ feelings, or openness to their ideas, is not part of his process of making a film, which, like Athena from the skull of Zeus, must spring solely from the director’s head, his insides.
In his anecdote, the author reveals nothing about what he gained from psychotherapy, but I wonder if he’d allowed himself to elaborate further, he would’ve ended up touching upon the fundamental truth that seems to inform many of his films, especially these three silents, and most particularly among these, The Docks of New York: that is, how little anyone can know about the insides of anyone else.
Orson Welles also worked this idea as a theme into several of his films, and in one of them, Touch of Evil (1958), he has one of his characters, an aging prostitute named Tanya, articulate it in the brief but powerful snatch of dialogue that ends the film. Tanya — enacted by Marlene Dietrich, a woman who’d played a prostitute in more than one von Sternberg film — delivers a succinct epitaph over the bloated corpse of Hank Quinlan: “What can you say about people? He was some kind of man.”
As a director, von Sternberg was nothing like Welles, yet they share this theme of the essential mysteriousness of people. For Welles, it’s the big man at the center of the drama who is unfathomable — Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan, Mr. Akadian — not to mention the big, unknowable man Welles himself. For von Sternberg it’s always a man and a woman who are mysteries to each other. Sparked by a crisis and with one or both of them emotionally wounded and self-contained, they venture toward each other across the vast chasms of psychic space humans place between themselves, a space bridged hesitantly by glances and the smallest of gestures.
The man must prove his mettle, however, or somehow reveal his love and loyalty, before there’s a climactic resolution to all the advances and retreats. At this final cadence, von Sternberg’s man and woman approach each other with a resolve to be together, to administer tenderness to each other. This readiness, leavened with caution and hard-earned wisdom, calls to mind the kind of love Rilke spoke of in his Letters to a Young Poet, the kind of love that consists of two solitudes protecting, bordering and greeting each other. I interpret Rilke as meaning “solitudes” in the sense that each individual’s fundamental aloneness (or mystery) remains when he/she mates with another, and that each individual recognizes that reality. Marlene Dietrich played a “solitude” for von Sternberg, as did Clive Brook, and as did Betty Compson in her one film with the director, Docks of New York.
In Docks, Compson is Mae, a down-and-out gal who attempts suicide by jumping into New York harbor one foggy evening. A burly stoker on shore leave, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), spots the event and fishes her out, taking her to the nearest seafront dive to dry out. Once recovered, and dressed in clothes Bill steals from a local pawnshop, the two attempt good times downstairs in the feverish hilarity of the honky tonk. There she meets Lou (Olga Baclanova), the dispirited wife of Andy (Mitchell Lewis), the third engineer from Bill’s ship, who sees her dirty dancing with another man, a sign that she’s probably taken to hooking as a way to make ends meet.
Bill and Mae have a few moments navigating about each other before violence between Bill and the bosun breaks out. Bill is never averse to a fight — he in fact gleefully anticipates them — but Mae pulls him out of it, and the two solitudes finally have time to greet each other. With a world-weary sardonicism masking her vulnerability, Mae asks Bill if he’s ever been married, to which he can only say “Who’d want to marry a guy like me?” and throw the same question back at Mae, who, attempting a shrug of indifference, responds with “Who’d want to marry a gal like me?”
A light bulb seems to light up over Bill’s head, who quickly answers, “I would!” and contrives a wedding on the spot, pulling in a local parson, Hymn-Book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz), to do the honors in front of the bar’s roiling crowd of drunks. It’s clear to the parson and to us that Bill intends merely to use his wedding night as an opportunity to get laid, but Mae, her defenses down in the madness of the moment, allows herself to believe in Bill and his brash and illusory commitment. From his moral perch, Hymn-Book Harry sees the whole sordid picture, including Bill’s less than honorable motives, but he also divines the beauty of Mae’s soul, quivering with naked need, and for her sake, and against his better judgment, goes ahead with the ceremony.
It’s a standout scene for both director and actress, but Compson’s performance throughout the picture is one of the most subtle and affecting in any von Sternberg film. The diminutive actress projects with heart-clutching clarity interior realms of wounded strength far beyond the abilities of Dietrich, so much so that you wonder if the director’s seven-film partnership with Dietrich, which would begin with The Blue Angel in production a year after Docks in 1929, was really the best thing that ever happened to him. After Shanghai Express, the films, albeit as lovely to look at and formally elegant as ever, seem to lose their grip dramatically and to enter a decadent phase; once past their last project together, The Devil is a Woman, von Sternberg worked only sporadically for the next two decades. In Fun in a Chinese Laundry, he refers to their penultimate film together, The Scarlet Empress, as “a relentless excursion into style,”5 an apt description of their last film as well, but whether a positive one, a moot point.
Throughout his autobiography, the director waxes cynical about the audience for mainstream Hollywood product. When it comes to The Devil Is a Woman, his attitude toward the studio and the audience is something like: “here I give them a visual poem extolling the greatness of Old Spain . . . and if they don’t get it . . . well, that’s their problem.” If what von Sternberg sought in the cold wit of The Devil Is a Woman is some rarefied, stylistic objectification, it seems he’d lost track of why people, then and now, go to the movies.
“To be precise in any art is to limit its possibilities,”6 writes von Sternberg, and as a truism this statement sounds unassailable, yet, with the focus he attained through his partnership with Dietrich came a lessening of the quality of discovery that lies at the heart of the solitary creative act, which von Sternberg — and other masters of the late silent era like F. W. Murnau — had somehow insinuated into that messy product governed and constructed by many hands, the Hollywood film.
Murnau received carte blanche for his last projects with UFA, e.g., Faust (1926), and for his first with Fox (Sunrise, 1927); and as William Fox’s imported genius-director, he felt entitled to its continuance. When it didn’t continue, he left the building, while the pragmatic émigré Fritz Lang, who also had massive bankrolling for German projects like Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927), didn’t even try for such independence in Hollywood. Von Sternberg’s cunning and resourcefulness at achieving and sustaining this kind of artistic free rein while laboring for Paramount cannot be overstated; each successive film contained in Criterion’s set7 breathes this sense of newness, of surprise, attaining a rare fusion of individually controlled form (through photography, editing, etc.) with the melodramatic content of mass entertainment.
In these silent films, von Sternberg’s image-making is as potent as any in his Dietrich series. In The Docks of New York, the imagery is not only powerful but to the point, enabling a simplistic fable of love and loyalty — through camera movement, expert cutting, and the capture of the hunger and regret in his actors’ eyes — to plumb human depths unexplored in the original story by John Monk Saunders (“The Dock Walloper”), I am sure.
Von Sternberg’s film is no Socialist tract, but it carries sympathy with those fallen into poverty, wounded by abuse, or rendered invisible by societal indifference — a sympathy not unlike that found in the German films of his contemporary, G. W. Pabst, e.g., Joyless Street (1925) or Pandora’s Box (1929). And, if the smoky, cluttered, shadowy interior of the Sandbar seems to prefigure that of the cabaret in The Blue Angel, it also looks ahead at the similar low-dive art direction in Pabst’s Threepenny Opera (1931).
But Pabst is more explicit in his sympathies with the downtrodden — certain images in Joyless Street and Threepenny Opera carry nearly as much leftist outrage as those in prints by Käthe Kollwitz — and his career shows a consistent return to a populist stance. Von Sternberg’s doesn’t. In fact, within the director’s body of work, Docks of New York appears more or less alone in its treatment of poverty and abuse, not to mention in some of the ashcan realism of its settings — until you consider his very first film, The Salvation Hunters, which concerns a small group of people barely eking out an existence in a barren industrial landscape.
In Fun in a Chinese Laundry, the author spends a few pages on Salvation Hunters taking star Georgia Hale to task for her postproduction attitude, which was disdain for him and his failed film, while — he must tell the world — it was the exposure in his film that led to Charlie Chaplin casting her in The Gold Rush (1925).
At the same time, he praises Hale’s willingness as he “maneuvered the young lady into the design of the film.”9 Her emotions “were infused into her image by the movement of the dredge, reflections in water, chalk scribbles, on walls, chewing gum, real estate signs, sea gulls, and a cracked mirror in which she penciled her eyebrows with the charred end of a match.”10 But this is praise extended toward an actress willing to be manipulated much as a painter would a gob of suspended pigment.
Then, further along in Fun in a Chinese Laundry, von Sternberg gets surprisingly chatty about what he’d aimed for in The Salvation Hunters. First, he calls the film “a visual poem”; then, to further differentiate it from other feature films, he says he sought “instead of flat light, shadows; in place of pasty masks, faces in relief, plastic and deep-eyed; instead of scenery, which means nothing, an emotionalized background that would transfer itself into my foreground.”11
Here in high relief are a word and a phrase: “plastic” and “emotionalized background,” both of which could be more easily applied to fine art painting than to filmmaking. Plastic, in particular, refers to art forms, such as painting and sculpture, that can be manipulated by hand, but the way von Sternberg uses the word is more rarefied; he appears to be referring to plastic form, which, in my experience, is used to describe (when applied to painting) the nature of abstracted, two-dimensional form and space. Emotionalizing a background is what any painter would do, and speaking of the background becoming a foreground points to the abstract nature of painting and photography; this is not generally how a feature film — no matter what its aesthetic ambitions — is discussed. It’s as if the director, while making it, would’ve liked to take the film and put it on an easel. Yet when it comes to these aesthetic aims and how he’s accomplished them as a filmmaker, the author has put his movies where his mouth is.
“Emotionalized background.” Has any writer on film come closer than von Sternberg himself to describing this aim to fuse mise en scène with character? And as to what can be achieved with this unity, von Sternberg recognized that it’s all a matter of lighting and photography. Although, in his attention to set design, von Sternberg took some cues from the meticulousness of Erich von Stroheim (whom he much admired), he went further than his fellow Austrian ex-pat into realms of purposely framed, lit, and photographed artifice, even when, as in the upstairs room in Docks of New York, the set has an excruciating amount of realism (below).
“Few are aware of the contribution made by the apparently invisible to the visible. To photograph a human being properly, all that surrounds him must definitely add to him, or it will do nothing but subtract,” states von Sternberg.12 “Adding” is where the artifice comes in, and whereas all films are necessarily abstract, von Sternberg takes the abstraction (or artifice) as the premise of the medium and deliberately pushes its potential — thereby heightening our awareness of it — in order to realize the emotional content of his film. Ever since Edison, films have played a game with the viewer in which he/she is invited to ignore the truth of abstraction and believe that the screen is a window opening upon a real event. Instead, von Sternberg begs that the formal reality of his films be recognized and read as the conveyer of their content.
A scene early in Docks of New York involving two secondary characters is an example of this visual artist firing on all cylinders. Book-ended by a trucking camera movement, the sequence is edited so succinctly that it could be lifted from the film as a sort of set piece (or a “visual poem”), except that, with all the formal panache on display, the camera movement, editing, and photography advance the story, its characterizations, and, ultimately, its meaning.
With Bill Roberts diverted by his rescue of Mae, we enter the dock’s honky tonk, the Sandbar, with the camera, which trucks into the dive while a bartender manhandles a misbehaving drunk out the door. As he goes out, we go in. The camera also takes in what we need to know about the particulars of the set: adjacent to the bar, an open seating area that ends at a raised dance floor, which is fenced in by a low balustrade, a ship’s wheel, and hanging fish nets. Multiple couples clutch tightly in a desperate two-step on the dance floor. The dancers move in their own realm of light — hazy bright, with few shadows.
The bullying third engineer from Bill’s ship, Andy, enters and surveys the hullabaloo, seeking a hookup. He finds one in a prostitute lounging at the edge of the dance floor. As he approaches her, von Sternberg cuts to the keyboard of the player piano, above which is a sticker advertising the services of Hymn Book Harry, who will turn out to be the moral pivot of the tale.
Then a cut to Andy casually observing the dancing, followed by a close-up of the blonde catching sight of Andy and, with rueful expression, recognizing him. Finally, a cut to Andy, in medium shot, his face sagging in dismay, locking eyes with the blonde, who ends this mini-sequence by leaving her dancing partner to join Andy behind the ship’s wheel and balustrade.
Throughout the sequence, Robert Israel’s score has reverted to the diegetic sounds of the player piano that von Sternberg has referenced in a single shot. Magically, the dancers’ movements always seem in step with the beat of the music, which at this point consists of a jaunty pop tune that creates a plangent disjoint with Lou and Andy’s bitter meeting. As Deryck Cooke remarks, in discussing the music of Gustav Mahler, “there is no more effective way of highlighting tragedy than to bring the trivial and ribald into grotesque opposition with it.”13
Once Lou joins Andy at the table outside the dance floor, the two confront each other in silence, truly becoming solitudes, and together with the dancers’ box-stepping motion behind them, their placement could take on a kind of expressionist, symbolic meaning, but von Sternberg’s film is not a painting, especially not one by Edvard Munch. Yet his framing of the characters’ stillness in front of the motion behind them has such a formal deliberateness about it that it inevitably brings up questions of intent, especially as to how it’s followed by the mirrored camera movement that ends the scene.
Fun in a Chinese Laundry’s penultimate chapter carries von Sternberg’s last use of that loaded word, “emotionalize,” but here he places it firmly in the context of filmmaking, that is, with the camera capturing movement, and, more relevantly, with the movement of the camera itself:
“Smoke,14 rain, fog, dust, and steam can emotionalize [my italics] empty space, and so can the movement of the camera. The camera can advance and retreat and encircle with or against the action it encounters. It can produce a fluid composition, related to the sum total of all its shifting images and make every movement part of the entire conception.”15
Leaving Lou and Andy frozen in attitudes of dejection and hurt, the director’s camera trundles backwards through the ongoing activity around them. The figures of the couple dwindle, along with their fixed-in-place misery, amid the bustle of a disinterested rabble; the bartenders are once again working at ejecting an angry drunk. Lou and Andy’s failure to connect will lead them both to tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that seeds its inevitability within an implacable chaos that neither sees nor hears it. But the camera sees it, and by receding swiftly from Lou and Andy, allowing them to nearly disappear within the frame, emphasizes the larger tragic context of this indifference — expresses it boldly — and takes the melodrama past the constraints of its predictability, perhaps even past the constraints of melodrama.
It’s a denouement fit for a final intertitle, maybe a zinger in the dialog. Bill has been sentenced to two months in the clink, and his final words to Mae are, “60 days ain’t a long cruise, Baby –– an’ it’ll be my last one if you’ll wait for me.” Mae, whose reply is the final intertitle, simply tells him that she guesses she’ll wait forever. Although this exchange satisfyingly settles a melodrama’s happy ending, neither intertitle expresses the picture’s larger view of its characters, in which the parallel fates of Lou and Andy, Mae and Bill are sunken and lodged within humanity’s “ignoble strife.”16 What we see last from the frame’s high perch, just before the picture fades to The End, is the tiny figure of Mae alone, watching Bill disappear into incarceration as the next case is hauled before the judge. Von Sternberg has given final say to his camera, which speaks silently and seeks not to explicate or even end the picture, but to excite our involvement with his film as a visual whole and to enable us to feel within it, its wordless meanings.
- Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Secker & Warburg, London, 1966. p. 85. [↩]
- Von Sternberg’s first solo film was The Salvation Hunters (1925), which he independently produced, as well as writing, casting, and photographing it. [↩]
- Criterion’s booklet excerpts the autobiography’s chapter on Emil Jannings, relevant to The Last Command. [↩]
- Von Sternberg, p. 156. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 265. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 85. [↩]
- Criterion’s release contains three out of a possible eight silent titles for which he is a credited director; three of these eight are either lost, presumed lost, or status unknown (for three more silent films, he was an uncredited and/or partial director). [↩]
- Von Sternberg, p. 203. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 155. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 202. Janet Bergstrom, in her excellent video essay on Underworld for Criterion, also quotes from these passages in Fun in a Chinese Laundry. [↩]
- Von Sternberg. p. 235. [↩]
- Cooke, Deryck. Gustav Mahler : an Introduction to His Music. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1988. p. 17. [↩]
- Especially, with von Sternberg, cigarette smoke. [↩]
- Von Sternberg, p. 325. [↩]
- From Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1751: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” [↩]