Sternberg, Josef von
- Peter Baxter
Sternberg, Josef von (29 May 1894–22 December 1969), film director, was born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna, Austria, the son of Moses Sternberg and Serafin Singer. Little is known of Sternberg’s childhood beyond a few pages of his memoirs, where he describes his family’s poverty, his father’s brutality, and his impressions of life in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Eventually, after traveling across the Atlantic four times, the family settled in New York City.
Sternberg left school at fifteen and worked at various jobs until joining the World Film Company as a film cutter in 1914. After wartime service with the army signal corps, he began his Hollywood career, acquiring a credit as “Josef von Sternberg” for one of the films he worked on before his first directorial effort, The Salvation Hunters (1924). That independent film impressed Hollywood’s luminaries with its somber artistic aspirations and gained him a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At MGM he completed The Exquisite Sinner (1926), which the studio considered so commercially flawed that it had the picture reshot by another director and released under a different title. Although after seeing A Woman of the Sea (1926), one critic at the time placed Sternberg among America’s most innovative filmmakers, the film’s producer, Charlie Chaplin, was so displeased with it that he had the negative destroyed.
Sternberg’s career breakthrough came at Paramount with Underworld (1927), a triumph of visual kinetics over pulp-magazine material. Sternberg created such bravura scenes as a light-streaked one in which a gangster’s hideout is shot to pieces around him.
In 1926 he married Riza Royce; they divorced five years later.
The Last Command (1928) confirmed Sternberg’s status: he directed Emil Jannings as a Russian general reduced by the revolution to playing bit parts in Hollywood spectacles. A respected, profit-earning director by 1929, Sternberg went to Berlin to direct Jannings’s first talkie, The Blue Angel (1930). Marlene Dietrich’s seductive presence in that film announced the most productive phase of Sternberg’s career.
By 1935 Sternberg and Dietrich had made seven films together. She submitted herself to his exacting direction, enduring take after take while he sought the lighting effect, the angle, the gesture that turned her face into a fascinating, unfathomable icon of sexual allure. All but one of their films were set in highly romanticized locales from Morocco to China. When Blonde Venus (1932), Sternberg’s attempt to portray middle-class American sexuality, was thwarted by studio censors, he turned to eighteenth-century Russia and Seville during carnival as hallucinatory settings for his most baroque, sardonic treatments of power and desire: The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).
While Sternberg’s productive pace slackened after he left Paramount in 1935, his creativity hardly faltered. Crime and Punishment (1935), one of two films he made at Columbia, is an interesting exercise in style rather than a satisfying adaptation of Dostoevsky, but the operetta The King Steps Out (1936) reveals an unexpectedly deft comic touch. The surviving shreds of I, Claudius (1937) show Sternberg working in top form before the English production was shut down. A return to MGM resulted, again, in only one film, Sergeant Madden (1939); Sternberg was too much his own man to work happily in Louis B. Mayer’s tightly controlled organization and it was only with The Shanghai Gesture, released by United Artists in 1941, that he again completed a film with the bite of his earlier work.
In 1943 he married Jeanne Annette MacBride, although they were divorced two years later. About this time he made a film for the Office of War Information: The Town, a twelve-minute documentary on the typically American small town of Madison, Indiana.
After this, Sternberg sold his Neutra-designed California home and moved to a site on the Hudson River. Here he immersed himself in writing, sculpting, and—he claimed—Chinese philately. He was married for a third time, to Meri Ottis Wilner, in 1948; they had one son. After returning to Hollywood to make Jet Pilot (1950; released 1957) and Macao (1952) at RKO, Sternberg evidently decided that he could no longer tolerate the studio system. In 1953, invited to make a film in Japan, he undertook his most remarkable work. The Saga of Anatahan was based on the experiences of a group of Japanese shipwrecked during the war on a Pacific island but, as in his films with Dietrich, the exotic setting simply provides the elements for a realm where emotional complexity is reduplicated in intricate screen imagery.
In his last years, finally settled in Los Angeles, Sternberg worked on his memoirs, taught classes at UCLA, and traveled to film festivals around the world, attending retrospectives of his work and serving on juries. He died in Los Angeles with a secure reputation as one of the greatest of American film directors.
Letters from Sternberg to film scholar Herman Weinberg (1948–1969) are in the Herman G. Weinberg Collection of the New York Public Library. Unpublished scripts for some of his films are in the MGM Archive of the University of Southern California and the Paramount Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in Los Angeles. Sternberg’s book of memoirs is Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965). For biographical and critical treatment, film credits, and bibliographies, see Herman G. Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg (1967); Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1966); John Baxter, The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg (1971); Peter Baxter, ed., Sternberg (1980); Gaylyn Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure (1988); Carole Zucker, The Idea of the Image (1988); and Peter Baxter, Just Watch! (1993). An obituary is in the New York Times, 23 Dec. 1969.