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.

hard to find clips of but The Blue Angel is von Sternberg’s greatest triumph- a towering masterwork of mise-en-scene

total archiveable films:  10

top 100 films: 1 (The Blue Angel)

top 500 films: 3 (The Blue Angel, The Scarlet Empress, Morocco)

from The Scarlet Empress– obstruction of mise-en-scene and beautiful symmetry

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.

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beautiful ornate detail in The Scarlet Empress

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.

on the short list of the greatest finales in film history– perfection of narrative and mise-en-scene in Morocco

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.

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shadow expressionism in Docks of New York
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creativity in the frame as always from von Sternberg in Docks of New York

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.

a typical shot- more of these on the web from Docks of New York but Blue Angel and others have countless stunning shots like this

top 10

  1. The Blue Angel
  2. The Scarlet Empress
  3. Morocco
  4. Underworld
  5. The Docks of New York
  6. Shanghai Express
  7. Blonde Venus
  8. Crime and Punishment
  9. The Shanghai Gesture
  10. The Last Command

By year and grades

1927- Underworld HR
1928- The Docks of New York
1928- The Last Command
1930- Morocco MP
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