Born in Austria but raised in New York, director Josef von Sternberg is best known for a series of movies he made with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s. Through films like Blonde Venus (1932) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg established a reputation for glamour, but also for pretension. He added the “von” to his name for aesthetic effect (he was born Jonas Sternberg), and multiple film critics over the years have characterized his films as shallow. All glitz – beautiful star, lush scenography – but no substance.
In this essay, I take a look at the unique mise-en-scene of Sternberg’s films and how it relates to the morally ambiguous worlds that his characters inhabit. Sternberg does have a preoccupation with surface – the textures of space and light – but his films are far from shallow. In fact, I would argue that Sternberg’s dense compositions mirror the rich subtext of his plots.
Josef von Sternberg films featured in this video essay:
The Docks of New York (1928)
Shanghai Express (1932)
Blonde Venus (1932)
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
The Devil is a Woman (1935)
Other films clips:
No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
If you love glamorous films from Classical Hollywood, mark your calendar for the following upcoming films at the IU Cinema:
- Sat Feb 11 – Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), featuring Joan Crawford and John Garfield
- Mon Feb 13 – An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), featuring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant
- Mon April 17 – It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), featuring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.