Between 1930 and 1935, Josef von Sternberg directed seven movies starring the German actress Marlene Dietrich. This extended collaboration represents one of the most fruitful and dazzling creative partnerships in film history, a director-actor pairing that rivals Yasujirō Ozu & Setsuko Hara or John Ford & John Wayne. The films they made together (one in Germany, six in Hollywood) are a series of glittering, almost nauseatingly stylized objects. One gets the sense that the initial idea behind each plot was Sternberg’s desire to dress Dietrich up and place her in a new, exotic setting: she becomes a cabaret singer (Morocco, The Blue Angel), an international spy called X-27 (Dishonored), a sex worker (Shanghai Express), a destitute mother (Blonde Venus), Catherine the Great of Prussia (The Scarlet Empress), and a femme fatale in turn-of-the-century Spain (The Devil Is a Woman). Rarely has Hollywood’s reputation as the “dream factory” been so potently fulfilled.
But these films are also prime glories of that lost art known as mise-en-scène. Sternberg had been one of the artistic giants of the silent era, directing Emil Jannings in the classic The Last Command (1928) and George Bancroft in the neglected masterpiece The Docks of New York (1928). He once said that his films should be projected upside-down so that audiences could better understand the pure play of light and shadow in his work. Dave Kehr summed up Sternberg’s visual style beautifully when he wrote, “Sternberg’s universe is a realm of textures, shadows, and surfaces, which merge and separate in an erotic dance. The director’s distant, serene gaze on the action represents the closest cinematic approach to James Joyce’s ideal of ‘aesthetic stasis.’” In Dietrich, Sternberg found an icy and remote beauty to spin his ornate webs around. Paradoxically, Dietrich becomes both an aestheticized object and a powerful subject-figure in the Sternberg films: she’s at once a doll-like muse, dressed up and objectified in a series of erotic fantasies, as well as a dominating puppet master who appears to bend both her male co-stars and the films’ design at her own will.
Unlike some other director-actor partnerships in which one standalone movie gets prestigiously elevated into the canon, there’s not a lot of consensus among cinephiles about which Sternberg-Dietrich film is the very best — you should see them all. If I had to pick just one to take with me to a desert island, I’d go with Morocco (1930), their second film together, a romantic melodrama of high artifice, and the first one done in the United States at Paramount. (Their first film together, Der blaue Engel /The Blue Angel , was shot in Germany.) Formally, Morocco is certainly the purest of their seven collaborations — Sternberg’s dense visual exoticism may be observed at its thickest and most layered here. I love what the critic Dan Sallitt writes about the background extras in this film: “The extras in this film really take up psychological space: hunching over tables in robes and turbans, fanning themselves silently in sweltering heat, impassive and unknowable. Unlike most extras, they are powerful, heavy, substantial.”
With Morocco, Sternberg claimed that he tried to avoid any resemblance to reality. In one key sequence, Dietrich’s Amy Jolly follows her lover into the desert, taking off her shoes to catch up with him and the other Foreign Legionnaires marching out of Mogador. She appears to be totally unphased by the scorching hot sands; in Sternberg’s world, love transcends the laws of natural order. Still, for all its implausibility, the film displays an insightful understanding of its characters. Sternberg remains attentive to small-but-important gestures in his direction of actors– in fact, one might say that he relies mostly on looks, glances, and appearances to convey characterizations, a technique he seems to be carrying over from the silent era. At the dawn of sound cinema, a lot of directors seemed to be insecure about the new technology, unsure about how to integrate spoken dialogue into film, perhaps afraid that it might import a kind of impurity into the art form. In Morocco, Sternberg showed everyone else the way to direct sound cinema by demonstrating that one needn’t overload a movie with dialogue and sound effects at all moments. The film is remarkably intense, even erotic, during its quietest passages.
These films aren’t just memorable because of Sternberg’s direction, though — they’re very much a collaboration between two great artists, the other being Dietrich. Recently re-seeing Orson Welles’s mind-blowing Touch of Evil on 35mm at the Music Box theater here in Chicago, I thought to myself, “Is Dietrich even acting? Or is it just her very presence that overwhelms me, that is synonymous with cinema?” It has to be one way or the other: either every performative gesture she makes is incredibly calculated and stylized and she just makes it look totally effortless, or she basically played a version of herself in every film she appeared in, in which case she’s simply one of the great axioms of cinema. In any case, we’re very lucky to have the films that she appeared in, and the ones she did with Sternberg represent the peak of her career as a performer.
Morocco was screened at IU Cinema in 2014 as part of the City Lights Film Series. Another Sternberg film, The Docks of New York, was part of the same series in 2013. Other Marlene Dietrich films that have been shown at the Cinema include Touch of Evil in 2015 (Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium) and Judgment at Nuremberg in 2013 (President’s Choice).
The six American Sternberg-Dietrich films have been released by Criterion in a handsome box set available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.