Josef von Sternberg. Von Sternberg’s strength is his top three films and his overall landmark and meticulous aesthetic approach and innovation. It’s hard to ignore someone so synonymous with mise-en-scene, obviously an important aspect of cinema (one of the key four elements along with camera movement, editing and form). I feel like von Sternberg is a great litmus test for film students as his narratives can be trying but his films are remarkably strong on style and characterization. I feel like my appreciation for Blue Bngel has grown over the years as my own film knowledge and appreciation has bloomed.
Best film: The Blue Angel. I’ve said it all above. If someone doesn’t appreciate this movie they aren’t watching cinema the same way I do: foreground/background detail, mise-en-scene blocking and obstruction.
total archiveable films: 10
top 100 films: 1 (The Blue Angel)
top 500 films: 3 (The Blue Angel, The Scarlet Empress, Morocco)
top 100 films of the decade: 7 (The Blue Angel, The Scarlet Empress, Morocco, Underworld, The Docks of New York, Shanghai Express)
most overrated: Literally all of his films are underrated or rated fine on TSPDT.
most underrated: This is impossible because all of his work is underrated. I’ll focus on his big three (Morocco, Blue Angel, Scarlet Empress) because those are the biggest travesties. I have Blue Angel at #76 and the TSPDT consensus says 615 (so we’re 539 slots off). I have The Scarlet Empress at #147 and the consensus has it at #450 (303 slots off). Lastly, I have Morocco at #215 and the consensus has it at #802 (587 slots off). Frustrating.
gem I want to spotlight: The Docks of New York. I’m overdue for seeing this but if memory serves the imagery is stunning- great shadow work– excited to get to it again.
stylistic innovations/traits: Mise-en-scene as he fashioned a unique Hollywood version of German Expressionism (albeit in melodrama instead of horror). His busy mise-en-scene is unmistakable. His use of massive objects in the field of vision has stuck with me as much as Eisenstein’s editing montage and Murnau’s moving camera. Also, his pairing with Dietrich is renowned for good reason as he created her as a major star in the 1930’s.
- The Blue Angel
- The Scarlet Empress
- The Docks of New York
- Shanghai Express
- Blonde Venus
- Crime and Punishment
- The Shanghai Gesture
- The Last Command
By year and grades
|1928- The Docks of New York|
|1928- The Last Command|
|1930- The Blue Angel||MP|
|1932- Blonde Venus||R|
|1932- Shanghai Express||HR|
|1934- The Scarlet Empress||MP|
|1935- Crime and Punishment||R|
|1941- The Shanghai Gesture||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
I am thinking of watching The Blue Angel. Its a rather old movie. Are there any complex and layered themes, is the camera movement good, is the acting like a silent film? . What should I ‘look’ for when watching it?
@Azman— There’s a powerful narrative, the transformation of Jannings’ character… but the highlight for sure is the visual style of von Sternberg’s mise-en-scene, literally what he puts in front of the camera– more so than the camera movement, editing or anything else… he’ll obstruct the frame with various objects in the foreground— split the frame— it is a seminal in that regards… years before Ozu would perfect it
I’ve been working my way through von Sternberg’s filmography this year but only just caught The Blue Angel. What a masterpiece, you can trace a pretty direct line from Caligari to this, but you can also see how it influences Cabaret more than four decades later.
That shot with the camera moving back from the professor after he is fired to reveal the empty desks was incredible the first time, and then its return as the very last shot stunned me. You’re right in that von Sternberg wasn’t an innovator of camera movement on the same level as Ophuls or Murnau, but it still feels so impactful and purposeful here.
@Declan- thanks for sharing this here– happy we’re on the same page with The Blue Angel!
I notice neither The Devil is a Woman nor Dishonored are in the archives. I’ve seen neither but I’m about to get into more of von Sternberg’s smaller films. Is it safe to assume they just weren’t good enough? Or have you not seen them?
@Declan- The Devil is a Woman rings a bell but I don’t have a record of it– sadly, I only started tracking every film watched (including those not in the archives) in 2015. So I can’t say for sure. My guess is I haven’t seen either yet. Please report back if you get a chance to see them.
I just finished my study of all the von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations (I will probably do the other von Sternberg films next but wanted to groups these ones together), and I believe that all but Dishonored are at least top 10 of the year quality. This is how I would rank them:
1. The Blue Angel – MP
2. The Scarlet Empress – MP
3. Morocco – MS/MP
4. Shanghai Express – HR
5. The Devil is a Woman – HR
6. Blonde Venus – HR
7. Dishonored – R
The Devil is a Woman particularly surprised me, it is certainly Dietrich’s most villainous role of them all and von Sternberg continues to show off some astounding mise-en-scene work. The opening scene is set at a carnival outside and it may be von Sternberg’s largest set. Just spectacular. Streamers smother the crowd at all angles, blowing in the wind, hundreds of balloons floating among them. A later scene takes place outside in the rain and it gives the image such great texture. The way he uses smoke, rain, and wind in this reminds me a bit of the way Kurosawa uses blowing dust to give movement to images that are otherwise quite still. The ending is a kick in the shins – Dietrich is just cold, you would hate her if it wasn’t so easy to love her.
Blonde Venus also has its fair share of stunners. Maybe fewer than the ones above it, but those that are in there really stand out. Von Sternberg seems to be moving his camera here more than his other films, and this adds a strange new dimension to his clutter, revealing its depth and extensiveness. One shot in particular jumps out at me, as it tracks Dietrich through a club shrouded in smoke, behind slats, props strewn all through the foreground and background moving past the camera, and then when she finally sits down her head is cut out by a frame within the frame. Blonde Venus also showcases a very young Cary Grant, one of the few actors in any of these films who can stand toe-to-toe with Dietrich. They deliver some great quippy banter between the two of them.
Dishonored’s best scene in terms of mise-en-scene is early on and quite similar to the carnival from The Devil is a Woman, though much smaller in scale. After this it sort of drops of visually, but there are some really wonderful long dissolves throughout, and a solid narrative behind it. Dietrich’s character even does some of her own acting in it, taking on a role I never would have expected her to take on. Just goes to she has range as well as magnetism.
@Declan a great addition to the page here. Thank you for putting this together.
I went for a bit of Von Sternberg lately and I’m quite impressed with later viewings. I’m slowly beginning to understand why cinephiles watch and rewatch films – with every viewing something different stays with you, and not only on a personal level (for example, Linklater’s Before trilogy registers very differently each time, because it’s so intimate), but on how one perceives art – having seen many, many more films now than I had when I first dealt with Von Sternberg, I can better understand why he is appreciated as he is. I more or less revisited The Blue Angel, Morocco and Shanghai Express, and they’re all wonderful. I agree that the Blue Angel should probably be his very best – perfectly lit, sharp contrast. Stark black and white, meticulous mise en scene, depth of focus, obstruction. It creates some perfectly dark atmosphere, somehow also capturing the essence of the Weimar era, all the while telling a story of erotic obsession at a time when most films (with glaring and welcome exceptions) were all about simplicity. Well, not exactly. I think pre code films, even the less impressive ones had a certain open-mindedness and allowed for complexity. Late 20’s and some early 30’s cinema is very surprising on that front. But the Blue Angel came about a few years before the Hayes code, and it was really one of the last pre code achievements, before American cinema more or less sank into an era of puritanism that would require 30 or so years to get over. But that is all beside the point. The Blue Angel is excellent, but I feel that somehow most people feel a stronger connection to Morocco. I think it is perhaps the most dreamy of Von Sternberg I’ve ever had the chance to watch. It is impossible to talk about him without hailing Marlene Dietrich, and here she is at the height of her powers, rocking a tuxedo like few can, smoking and disarming everyone with nothing more than a look. Perhaps the definition of magnetism on screen. I believe Morocco gains a lot of points with the ending – as you’ve mentioned it’s simply narrative brilliance. Wonderfully poetic. The wind blowing, gorgeous desert backdrop, the nomads leaving the town, as do our protagonists. Dietrich’s farewell to her loved one, the bittersweet look in her eyes and her heading off into the unknown is one of the great moments in film history and her greatest moment as an actress. She makes for the perfect canvas – love, loss, abandonment and liberation, all encompassed in her most subtle gestures and her lowered gaze. Possibly it didn’t influence the Sheltering Sky at all, but they somehow have a lot in common. The Shanghai Express is a good one as well. I feel that it is somewhat stronger visually than Morocco, and some frames are simply brilliant (her smoking alone in her room, a classic). But it seriously lacks in narrative, precisely where Morocco excels. But Von Sternberg is great at that in general, telling stories of otherness, lonesomeness, set in almost a different world. And he does capture that setting beautifully.
@Georg- this is superb- great add here as always. Yes, I think if you wow them at the end (like Morocco does) it tends to linger with people and maybe we remember it as a better film than it actually is (while watching the film up until that end).
@Drake – definitely. And, by the way, I just checked with the TSPDT consensus and they still have Morocco ranked at around #800 and the Blue Angel at #600 or so. I mean, this is wrong. If we were to find an anti-Von Sternberg, one of the contenders might be Von Trier (both Von’s, for that matter). I’ve spoken before about how much I admire Dogville but having it well into the top 500 (not an inaccurate assessment in my book) and leaving Von Sternberg off is not something I can get around to. Nearly all of his films on the list seem to be slowly ascending though. They’re about 10 to 20 slots above their former assessment, and here’s hoping critics will study Von Sternberg a bit more. I don’t like to think that I’m right and so many critics are wrong, but in this case it really feels that way.
[…] 26. Joseph von Sternberg […]
My ranking of von Sternberg`s films that I`ve seen:
1. The Blue Angel MP
2. The Scarlet Empress MP (top two are almost interchangeable)
3. Morocco MS/MP
4. Shanghai Express MS
5. Underworld HR
6. The Docks of New York HR
7. The Last Command HR
8. Blonde Venus R
9. Crime and Punishment R