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Sublime Artifice

"It’s impossible to imagine Sternberg getting anywhere in today’s Hollywood, which is more and more intent on sociological balancing acts"

Manuel Arias Maldonado

Sublime Artifice
Foto: Don English| Flickr
Manuel Arias Maldonado

Manuel Arias Maldonado

Profesor de Ciencia Política en la Universidad de Málaga y colaborador habitual en prensa y medios culturales.

The other day, while reading an academic article on “cultural appropriation”, which occurs, the theory goes, in its most damaging form when members of a dominant group take elements of a minority’s culture or identity as their own, I was reminded of one of Josef von Sternberg’s Orientalist fantasies: that superb exploration of amor fou that is Morocco (1930), in which the singer Amy Jolly —played by Marlene Dietrich, in the first of the films that she made for Paramount with he Viennese director — falls head over heels in love with a soldier from the Foreign Legion and, in a wild denouement that all the surrealists raved about, leaves everything behind to go along with the caravan of women who follow the legionnaires across the desert in a campaign under a blazing sun…

Since it was a pre-code film, that is, from before the self-censorship that was in place in Hollywood for nearly three decades, Sternberg can allow himself the audacity of having Dietrich sing in a tuxedo and, as if that were not enough, to kiss a woman on the lips who is in the audience of the club where the show is going on. Bourgeois complacency is also subverted to the extent that Amy Jolly, on taking the desert road, gives up all claim to the life of luxury promised her by the rich entrepreneur played by Adolphe Menjou (who was as cynical as the characters he played and said he had two modes as an actor: “Lubitsch 1 or Lubitsch 2.” Though he probably deviated from this norm when he played the detective in The Sniper, a film noir gem from the early 50s). The whole film, like the ones that would follow in the glorious succession which included Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress, constitutes a stylized and aestheticizing fantasy that does not aim to take intercultural dialogue seriously but, precisely, appropriates the most motley assortment of cultural signs, playfully, in order to create a self-sufficient universe where human conflicts play out.

That was the path that Sternberg, a Viennese emigré raised in Brooklyn, would take, whenever they let him. Although he was more reined in by the studio and deprived by then of the vivifying presence of his fetishised actress, both The Shanghai Spell and Macao (for which Nicholas Ray filmed a few scenes) express the same will to escapism, which climaxes in that highly original —but little known— film The Saga of Anatahan, shot in Japan in 1953 for just a couple of yen. Despite its fame, The Blue Angel is a lesser work, dragged down by the presence of Emil Jannings, who is less forceful in the era of sound cinema, and by an excessively static quality which has to do with the difficult technical conditions of the shooting. And yet it will always remain as Marlene Dietrich’s debut and as an archetypal representation of the possibility of a man’s perdition at the hands of a woman who is, for all the rest, rather less “fatal” than other creations by the director.

Does anybody still see these films, outside of the closed circuit of cinephilia? It’s hard to say. Although the Dietrich myth is forged in her work with Sternberg, a fact that she herself had no trouble recognizing and with the greatest gratitude, it has a life of its own: she went on making films and then she reinvented herself as a singer. The British Film Institute has just released a box set with restored editions of the films that she made for Universal between 1940 and 1942, showing the process whereby the actress adapted to a studio system conditioned by the new context of war. One only has to look at the titles it contains to confirm the overwhelming superiority of the six films that Sternberg and Dietrich made in Paramount between 1930 and 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, which have been compiled in a recent Criterion edition. These little editorial events are the delight of thousands of film buffs all around the world, but it seems inevitable to conclude that the sublime artifice that Josef Sternberg constructed almost a century ago with Marlene Dietrich beside him has lost ground within western culture.

It certainly wasn’t that way in the 60s and 70s, which coincide with the Golden Age of cinephilia begun in the 50s. Anyone who visits the universe of José María Alvarez can see that for himself. Álvarez is a Spanish poet who was included —apparently only after great reluctance— in the famous anthology of the novísimos [lit. ultra new] edited by José María Castellet, and he has been building up a surprising body of work in progress titled Museo de Cera [Wax Museum]: between its first edition in 1974 and the latest one in 2002 he has continued to incorporate poems —headed invariably with quotations from books or songs or movies— which sing of life through literature. In this beautiful aestheticising labyrinth, which has its fair share of whimsy and self-indulgence, cinema occupies a priviliged space. Significantly, references to Sternberg abound: there are poems which bear the title of his films, like Dishonoured and The Saga of Ana-Ta-Han, this last one headed by a passage from the memoirs of the Viennese director, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and this in turn lends its title to a poem dedicated to Orson Welles, which deals with the “the bitter dust of exile”… There is also a poem written in Paris in December 1969, after hearing news of the director’s death:

“How many enemies
one would have to offer you
oh Death
in order to even the score.”

Fortunately, Sternberg left behind him a brilliant book of memoirs before he died, that Fun in a Chinese Laundry which Álvarez cites and which was published in the United States in 1965 (there is a Spanish edition published by Ediciones JC in 2000, out of print at present), shortly after our man finished his years of teaching at the UCLA (where he made quite an impression on his students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, the heart and soul of The Doors). It’s an indispensable book for any film buff and commends itself to any reader; more than memoirs in the strict sense of the word, these are reflections on the cinematic medium rooted in the filmmaker’s personal experience. For anyone willing to get inside them,. memory texts from the classic Hollywood period are a treasure trove of surprises and, occasionally, intelligence. That is the case with Sternberg, who can be reproached for his pedagogical arrogance, even as one enjoys his sarcasm. At the end of the day, a modest man would never have been able to create Underworld (perhaps the first silent gangster film) or Shanghai Express.

Jo Sternberg, whose name in Hollywood, to the amusement of journalists, came to be the aristocratic-sounding Josef von Sternberg, is clear that art is lacking any mission whatsoever: it serves its own interests. In an interview granted Swedish television in 1968, in fact, he was questioned about the lack of a “message” in his films, and he responded frankly: “If I had wanted to send a message, I would have gone to Western Union” (Nabokov once said something very much like that, to wit, that novels do not aim to “communicate” anything; there are telegrams if that’s what you are looking for). Our man is clear that he is an artist and he affirms himself as such, aware that this drastically limits his popularity in a medium —cinema— that for elementary financial reasons demands popular success. He writes: “I would love to attract others to my world, but my world is not the world of the masses, even if the mass of men have often been to it.” Sternberg stresses that an individual’s behaviour within a crowd changes appreciably, it being the case that the general public as a whole is a “homogeneous herd, easily manipulated by appealing to its common denominators.” When he refers to this “vast brotherhood”, however, Sternberg is talking about the viewer who went to the movie theatre when there was no television, much less the possibility of bringing a la carte cinema to your home. In fact, he doesn’t believe that the audience might get better in time, either. Narration for the masses has, however, been getting more complex as viewers have grown familiar with new narrative devices. And studio cinema itself knew how to combine popular appeal with visual or dramatic solutions that were occasionally brilliant, despite the uniformity that the classic model of representation imposed.

But Sternberg wanted to go far and that is why he does not hesitate to say that a film director is “a poet with a camera.” He is someone who writes with the camera, as Alexandre Astruc argued when he talked about the caméra-stylo [pen-camera] and as many film theorists continue to suggest who talk about the “writing” of such-and-such a director. As French criticism had pointed out, the director is for Sternberg “the main author of a film.” That does not mean that the director may not often be —he confesses— an irritating person, who would do well to feign ignorance if he does not want interference in his work to turn it into something unrecognizable; there is something masochistic in the job, which is not at all enviable anyway if you take into account the exhausting number of people whom one must control and the different components one must have in hand. And that is true even though Sternberg was able to write, photograph and design his own sets.

Like many other great directors, Sternberg began in silent cinema and holds the opinion that cinema is above all a visual art: the impact of a film depends on the moving image. But beauty is not in the objects, he warns, but in the senses; it’s all about awakening the appropriate sensation in the viewer (although we have already seen that he doesn’t hold the viewer in great esteem). That is why he is so skeptical of adapting literature to the screen: values particular to the written word are lost along the way. Nor is it surprising that he should lament the effect triggered by sound cinema, the transition to which he experienced in the first person. He complains that the word had to serve as a counterpoint to the image instead of replacing its vivifying force. It’s as if sound broke the effect of the unreal created by the image: “Sound was realistic, the camera was not.” That would, naturally, change; sound was able to come into its own as a creative force of the first order when it began to be used intelligently —Hawks, Welles, Tournier, Godard, Altman— without remedying, however, the problem of communicability which went along with it. Despite Hollywood’s efforts to shoot films in different linguistic versions and despite the improvement that dubbing brought with it, sound cinema lost the power that silent cinema had, whose images were understandable the world over, even for those who did not know how to read or write.

It’s also the case that Hollywood, from the very beginning, had a world character. Considering his artistic vocation, Sternberg could not have a very good opinion of the Angeleno dream factory: its artifice seemed patently inferior to his. The pressure to be commercial could only have seemed obscene to him, as if it were beneath his level; culture was not especially well-regarded and even as learned a man as John FarrowMia’s father— had to devote himself to making movies for entertainment, however brilliant they often were. Sternberg, revealing what was no doubt an unfair disdain for the studio system, bemoans the fact that its superficial content “appears to grow and flourish exclusively in the Tropic of Hollywood”, where the camera demands action instead of meditation. And he does not spare a sardonic remark about television, which would today be harder to sustain: “To lower a low standard is even harder than to raise a high one, but the law of supply and demand operates efficiently and the little electronic tube has immediately amassed demand for stupid content.”

For those fond of metacinematic reflection, it must be said that Sternberg already wove a tale— based on an idea by Lubitsch— about Hollywood’s capacity to swallow the real whole in The Last Command, in which an old czarist general winds up playing a Russian soldier in a movie production, dying in the middle of the filming ,after hallucinating that he was once again in battle on the steppe. It’s a glorious conclusion, played with pathos by Emil Jannings in what turned out to be his specialty: the figure of note whose bad luck (The Last Command) or clumsiness (The Blue Angel) turns him into a human wreck.

Jannings, after a successful career in Germany, made pictures in Hollywood and ended up directing the UFA for his Nazi friends; he is one of the actors that Sternberg savages in his memoirs. Another is Charles Laughton, who was to play the role of the emperor Claudius in an adaptation of Robert Graves’s book produced by Alexander Korda. The film began shooting in London but was abandoned — according to Sternberg— because of the problems and delays caused by the inimitable British actor. After reminding everyone that the Roman Senate approved a resolution that forbade its members from being seen in public in the company of actors, Sternberg refused to give any credit at all to some actors whose only job, he said, was, to “imitate” the expressions used by millions of human beings on a daily basis. Although he recognizes that movie actors have to surmount difficult conditions, surrounded as they are by lights and cameras, and constantly interrupted or forced to repeat takes, he denies that they are artists. Unlike theatre actors, they do not even have the opportunity to behave as such. The movie actor gets a lot more attention than he deserves, he says, benefitting by an emotional speculation for which he is not responsible. “Neither the speculation nor the emotions are his.” Joseph Tura’s (Jack Benny’s) impotence in To Be or Not to Be comes to mind: he is in charge of entertaining the Nazi commandant and yet he is incapable of doing so because —he tells his fellow actors in an aside— he “is running out of dialogue.” It’s just that actors operate in a void and only the cleverest defer to what the director has to say to them, without worrying about anything else. Sternberg writes bluntly of an actress who insisted on asking him for explanations: “Whatever was going on in her head or in anybody else’s in that film was of no concern to me, because I was too busy with what was going on in mine.” However, that said, he took Marlene Dietrich as an example, a relationship about which he has written memorable pages. Sternberg observes that only women enjoyed the process of transformation (possibly “mortifying”) to which he subjected them. From his point of view, actors are no more than material the director uses in his complex task and as such, they do not merit more attention or care than other materials. It’s possible that he was jealous: Hollywood has always been more of a star system than an authorial paradise. That would align him with Oscar Jaffe, the theatrical director of Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks’s comedy: “I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor.”

Sternberg commissioned a house —which was later destroyed— by the then unknown Richard Neutra and he praises Luis Buñuel as “one of the most capable directors”; he did have a good eye, no doubt about it. And although he maintains that the great artists are only accepted with the passing of time, he did know worldly success during the years that span The Docks of New York and The Devil Is a Woman (where a carnivalesque and head-spinning Spain appears). His cinema is an early questioning of the classical model of representation, one of whose features is the invisibility of the author: in his films the artifice is so visible, the aesthetic saturation is so formidable that it does not seem to place much importance on the suspension of disbelief. The plots are secondary with respect to the exaltation of pleasure, the search for beauty and the cultivation of imagistic excess. And what images they are: Dietrich hurling herself into the desert, appearing beneath a gorilla disguise in a ballroom or shining in the night in the last car of the Shanghai Express. His silent films are also full of audacious visual finds, not to mention the handcrafted sets for Anatahan or the play of shadow and lust which brings to life those uneven exercises in exoticism that constitute The Shanghai Spell and Macao.

It’s impossible to imagine Sternberg getting anywhere in today’s Hollywood, which is more and more intent on sociological balancing acts: maybe he would find a niche in the cinema of some European country. Nor do we know if the audience —great or small— would be interested in a cinema with no other message to deliver but visual pleasure. But we have his films, marketed in editions of greater and greater quality, waiting to be discovered by new generations of viewers; it would be a pity if that were not to happen. The spell his films cast is so great that they justify a poem like that “Oh oh oh the cinema”, written by José María Álvarez, a fervent admirer of the Viennese director. His verse may serve us here as “The End”:

“Films I have loved. Like certain pages,
a certain musician’s score,
particular paintings or a stroll through Rome,
are the only life I wish
to live, The splendor of those shadows
consoles me for those other shadows
that are the times I live, and despise.”

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