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Distilling emotion
The privileged worlds of Josef von Sternberg
"Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond"
Mondays at the Brattle Theatre through June 7.

For Josef von Sternberg, direction meant distilling emotion into a three-by-four rectangle of light. His images are musical, contemplative, layered with nuance and tingling with visual excitement. Nets, veils, shadows, or rain provide curtains for him to throw over action he has no interest in, to let plot be absorbed into music. Rhythms are set by light moving across the frame, as the camera passes a window or someone brings a match to the tip of a cigarette. Actors’ eyes also make rhythm, looking up, down, back, and away with the quick arrogance that’s part of the invented code of hipness to which Sternberg introduced his performers. Over the next five Mondays, the Brattle will celebrate this consummate director with a nine-film series.

One metaphor for Josef von Sternberg’s work is the portrait of the movie studio in The Last Command (1928; May 10 at 7:45 and 9:45 p.m.). The brutality of industrial filmmaking is etched in a series of joyless scenes: the mob of hungry extras waiting for the studio gates to open; a trio of grim functionaries tossing costumes at each other. They handle a general’s uniform with no more ceremony than a corporal’s, showing that Hollywood, the illusion industry, respects neither tradition nor achievement. But the flashbacks to tsarist Russia, where the $7.50-a-day bit player Sergius (Emil Jannings) was once a general, show that costume is just external ornament: the general is a brute and a boor, someone overplaying the part of a general, and his aide, who likes to sneak the general’s cigarettes and try on his fur coat, could just as well play the same part.

The film hammers home the similarity between tsarism and the regime at the studio, where (to notch up the irony) a former revolutionary (William Powell) has become a director. The comparison might appear simplistic, except that behind it lies a larger insight: in any despotism, the cast is the same: generals, toadies, oppressed, opposition. If politics is unimportant to Sternberg, it’s because he sees it as performance, and he cares most about the moments when being fuses with role or forces the actor to discard the role.

In his films with Marlene Dietrich, whom he made a star, Sternberg embarks on an epic search for such moments through the adventures of a figure he called "a pictorial aphrodisiac . . . , a perfect medium, . . . my conception of a female archetype." Der blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (1930; May 17 at 7:30 p.m.) tells of a distinguished professor (Jannings) destroyed by his love for cabaret singer Lola Lola (Dietrich). The professor could have been played as a sympathetic victim and Lola as a femme fatale, but Sternberg and Dietrich make it clear that Lola’s treatment of her prey is justified; she’s not even malicious, only superior to everyone else (Sternberg’s is an aristocratic world view). Her superiority lies in her ability as a performer and in her professionalism, both of which set her above those who stand by and resent her or who flutter around her and burn their wings.

Paramount brought Dietrich to Hollywood, where Sternberg directed her in six more films (of which only the underrated 1931 Dishonored is missing from this series). Each is a piece of exotica, but each shows Sternberg, contrary to his reputation as a rococo ringmaster of high-camp follies, fighting against as much as reveling in the exoticism. In Morocco (1930; May 24 at 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.), a romantic triangle among drifter Amy Jolly (Dietrich), a French Foreign Legionnaire (Gary Cooper), and a rich older man (Adolphe Menjou), Sternberg’s study of erotic obsession, though enhanced by the lush setting, is supported only by the looks, fervent or derisive, that organize the film’s emotional space. Each shot carries the weight and the threat of a stone; all the resources of Lee Garmes’s lighting are employed to convey a supernatural intensity. The most famous moment in Morocco is a tribute to sexual ambiguity: during her nightclub act, Amy pauses to borrow a flower from a woman spectator whom she kisses on the mouth. Then she tosses the flower to the Legionnaire, who proceeds to match her in androgyny by tucking it behind his ear.

Shanghai Express (1931; May 24 at 7:30 p.m.) comes off as less astringent than Morocco because the freedom of choice the characters claim to exercise is not proved illusory, because God is invoked, and because the logic of the constellation of characters (which includes Dietrich as Shanghai Lily, notorious up and down the coast of China, and Anna May Wong as a prostitute) is accidental rather than necessary. Yet it’s easy to see past the film’s Hollywood-entertainment gloss into another of Sternberg’s privileged worlds, where people exist by their responses to light and to the camera’s imperious glare.

The absurdity of the scenario of Blonde Venus (1932; May 17 at 5:30 and 9:45 p.m.) allows the director to bypass it without regret. Sternberg’s ambivalence toward the Dietrich figure is at its height: alternately faithful wife, prostitute, and star, she surrenders to the succession of images that define her while retaining a mysterious interior life. No man is enough for her, not even Cary Grant (who’s made to look too good by being both rich and sincere), and certainly not her weak, bitter husband (Herbert Marshall). The story ends with her reconciliation with the latter, leaving behind it a sense of injustice.

Dietrich herself — performer and woman — is both the theme of Blonde Venus and its principle of coherence; the same is true of The Scarlet Empress (1934; May 31 at 3 and 7:15 p.m.), in which the Russian history unfolding behind the furs and veils of Dietrich’s Catherine the Great is reduced to an allegory played out among isolated grotesques (John Lodge’s bearlike ambassador, Sam Jaffe’s gnomish king, Louise Dresser’s queen mother out of a Gold Diggers movie). From the frightening sequence in which Catherine dreams of being the hangman of Russia to her final apotheosis, the mise-en-scène creates a nightmare of unrestrained, outsized forms.

Near the end of the shooting of The Devil Is a Woman (1935; May 31 at 1, 5:15, and 9:30 p.m.), Sternberg sent his star a note: "My parting gift to you will be the greatest ‘Dietrich film’ yet. In it, I give you all my talent. You will see the ultimate Dietrich and it will be your favorite of our seven films." He was right; Dietrich always regarded Devil as her favorite film — "because I was most beautiful in it," she said, which is true, but as Steven Bach noted, she also does her best acting in it. Concha is a cigarette-factory worker who infatuates the aristocratic Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) and lets him support her while she drives him to despair. She leads him on but never gives herself to him, torturing him with the thought that she has younger lovers.

Both a rich, virtuosic farce and a strange modern tragedy, the film takes as its subject the equation of love and death, reducing plot to the mere effect of the revelation of beauty on the male characters’ emotions. In its disdain for event, The Devil Is a Woman resembles Morocco, but it replaces the stillness of Morocco’s style with a furious opulence that makes only more palpable the filmmaker’s mordant awareness of the presence of death in life. And even more than in the previous Dietrich-Sternberg films, the filmmaker’s love of his star’s skill, energy, and humor shines through the images.

The Brattle series ends with a superb double bill of two literary adaptations Sternberg made without Dietrich. An American Tragedy (1931; June 7 at 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.) depicts an America of hash joints, poolhalls, factory piecework, class prejudice, Protestant fundamentalism, and untrusting faces, amid all of which the idylls of parks, lakes, and forests seem like oases of hallucination. Theodore Dreiser’s narrative undergoes severe compression, and the writer sued to try to stop the film’s release, but the result is a work of chilling harshness, far less sentimental and compromised than George Stevens’s more famous 1951 remake, A Place in the Sun. Phillips Holmes’s harassed, strained performance is effective in conveying the abjection of a specimen of "mental and moral cowardice," and Sternberg’s grotesque farce of a murder trial portrays American justice with a relentless negativity inconceivable in a major-studio film today.

The indeterminate setting of Crime and Punishment (1935; June 7 at 7:30 p.m.) suggests both the America of An American Tragedy and a Hollywood re-creation of 19th-century Europe. Making his American debut as Raskolnikov, Peter Lorre is, it’s clear, too cryptic, erratic, impulsive, and unpredictable for stardom; like Sternberg, he refuses to set off some fetishized truth of the character from the character’s poses and parodies. Crime and Punishment stands as an austere but full exposition of Sternberg’s world view, in which rhythm and meaning come from light, shadows, faces turning, and looks shifting.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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