Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg was an Austrian-American film director. His family emigrated permanently to the United States when he was fourteen, and he grew up in New York City. Sternberg started working in Hollywood as a filmmaker in 1925 directing various silent films, by which time he had adopted the use of ‘von’ in his name. After making The Last Command in 1928, (which had actor Emil Jannings win the Academy Award) Sternberg was invited from Hollywood to Berlin in 1930 to make The Blue Angel. Not only would this be Sternberg’s very first talkie, but The Blue Angel is known for being the first major German sound film within Europe. The film also brought the beautiful and legendary actress Marlene Dietrich (who was an unknown revue-artist at the time) into international stardom. Sternberg’s The Blue Angel became one of the most provocative, risqué and taboo-sexual oriented Expressionism films of the early 30s, and it forever made Marlene Dietrich an iconic sex-symbol. Sternberg and Dietrich made a total of six years together in Hollywood, including the visually stunning extravaganza Shanghai Empress in 1934, in which Marlene Dietrich plays a young princess of Germany who is taken to Russia to marry a Grand Duke. The film is most famous for its attentive gothic lighting of candles, abstract, exaggerated bawdy composition shots and the bizarre expressionist art design of distorted gargoyles, and several grotesque statues. Sternberg is one of the true Hollywood visionaries, always presenting a relentless excursion into style and spectacle. It is said that he dressed in costumes appropriate to the films he was making, made his assistants remove their wristwatches because the ticking would distract him, and calmly claimed he did it all himself: direction, photography, lighting, sets, props and the costumes. When sound became incorporated into film, Sternberg was one of the few silent directors who actually made a smooth and successful transition from silent to sound films. Sternberg was more at ease with sound than many of his contemporaries and was perhaps the first director to deal with how offstage sounds alter as doors are opened and closed. Sound itself was seen as self-sufficient in the earlier days, but Sternberg was already modulating it, tilting it toward realism. What’s most fascinating about Sternberg was his erotic obsession with Marlene Dietrich, whom he chose to objectify throughout a series of different movies. Dietrich wisely capitalized on her glamour and exotic looks, while Sternberg helped cement her stardom, making her not only one of the highest-paid actresses of that era, but one of the immortal icons of the cinema.

Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg Featured Films
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Articles and Essays on Josef von Sternberg

Blue Angel, The (1930)

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel is one of the most provocative, risqué and taboo-sexual oriented German films of the early 30s. Not only is the film known for being the first major German sound film but also the film that brought the beautiful and legendary actress Marlene Dietrich into international stardom. The Blue Angel portrays all […]