Now that Martine is out of my life for the time being, I am watching more television—though in an organized way. Last night, there was a Josef Von Sternberg festival on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). I had seen most of the films before, but wanted to see a couple of them again. First was The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel in German, 1930), which Von Sternberg filmed in Germany, working for the first time with Marlene Dietrich. Next came The Shanghai Express (1932), set in China on a train ride through a civil war setting.
I visited the director at his house on Lindbrook in Westwood near the UCLA campus. At the time (the late 1960s), it was difficult to see old films unless they were screened on a 16mm or 35mm projector. I was looking to do my master’s thesis on Sternberg and hoped that somehow he had access to prints of his films that I could arrange to have screened for me. Although he did not, I was impressed by his graciousness. He had been considered to be one of Hollywood’s ogres, but he made some of the most beautiful films I had ever seen. Even his first picture, The Salvation Hunters (1924), was incredible, all the way through to his last The Saga of Anatahan (1952).
Along the way, he wrote an interesting autobiography called Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965) and a novel called Daughters of Vienna (1922), which I hunted down and read through an inter-library loan.
I even knew the director’s son, Nicholas, whom I met frequently at UCLA at film screenings. Today he is a cinematographer in his own right.
Josef Von Sternberg died in 1969, leaving behind a body of work that will never be equaled, especially as he filmed almost exclusively in black and white. There was a crowded, almost claustrophobic quality to his work. In Morocco (1930), he has a company of French Foreign Legionnaires walking in chiaroscuro along a narrow street under a series of crisscrossed laths. The train in Shanghai Express leaves Peiping (now Beijing) along a narrow street crowded with Chinese and their animals. He was a master of the cucoloris, a kind of cut-out for casting interesting shadows.
My friend Peter, who is himself a cinematographer, tells me that a film director had to see how the shot was lit at every stage of the actors’ movements or the camera’s. No one was better at this than Von Sternberg.
I will follow up this post with a list of my favorite Von Sternberg films in a day or two.