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Creator: Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg was born in New York City but spent a great deal of his youth studying in Vienna, Austria in a german school. He was a mix of two worlds, one was 20th Century, modern and forward marching, the other was 19th Century, decadent and dying. His films mix and match both worlds. He was The Pioneer in the silent era, shooting on location for his very first film, The Salvation Hunters. This film was made independently, outside the system of Hollywood and had no hope of wide distribution. Luckily, Sternberg had a friend who managed to play the film in Charlie Chaplin's private theatre, Chaplin was impressed with the groundbreaking cinematography that he called the director to Hollywood and invited him to make a film.

That film was The Sea Gull starring Chaplin's Muse and Leading lady Edna Purviance but for reasons that have never been made clear, Chaplin shelved the film and then burned the negative. Despite this, Sternberg got his foot into Hollywood and made several silent films that were technically brilliant and bold in content. His films are famous for his compositions, his use of chiaroscuro and striking black and white photography. They were also pretty provocative in dealing with sexual content, even by modern standards. His movies usually dealt with the Masochism Tango between men and women, locating the drama in 19th Century Europe as in The Last Command or working class America as in The Docks of New York. He also directed proto-gangster films in Underworld and The Dragnet(now lost). Sternberg's visual style created self contained worlds that seem to take place in an elaborate universe that was fastidiously lit and graded for varying tones of black, white and gray and the reason for that is that it was fastidiously lit and graded for varying tones of black, white and gray.

Sternberg was The Perfectionist of the kind that would make even Stanley Kubrick flinch. He would direct his films Prussian Drill Sergeant Nasty style, a mean martinet to his crew and his cast with whom he would have epic fights. He also clashed with producers. He was an aesthete who believed passionately in Doing It for the Art. His house in Los Angeles was an architecture marvel built by Richard Neutra and he would collect paintings, sculptures and visit churches in Europe in his spare time.

When sound arrived, Sternberg was in Germany making a film with Emil Jannings, the top German star of the time. For the film's lead heroine, Sternberg cast a young actress who appeared in a few German films but hadn't been noticed yet. The film was The Blue Angel, the actress was Marlene Dietrich who stole the film with her iconic performance as "Lola Lola". She and Sternberg fell in love and became a Creator Couple with Sternberg making several films with her that made Dietrich one of the greatest actresses in film history and a Hollywood icon that no one would forget. They were sexually provocative and pessimistic about relationships and regarded romantic love and cliches with a contempt that needless to say, did not always translate to box office glory. Films like Morocco(which featured the first Lesbian kiss in film history) and the anti-heroic biopic of the wanton Catherine the Great (The Scarlet Empress) have to be seen to be disbelieved. These films were made in The Pre Code Era and when the The Hays Code went into effect, Sternberg and Dietrich were no longer together and Sternberg, no longer able to tackle his preferred material struggled afterwards. His only well known film after that being The Shanghai Gesture a lurid film noir, set in a landscape of decadence, compromise, sexual neurosis and girls in cages.

His final film was The Saga of Anatahan which tackled the Japanese soldiers stranded in the wild, not knowing the war was over. It was shot in Japan with non-professional Japanese with Sternberg supplying an English voice-over. Released in 1951, it was needless to say, out of touch with time, prefiguring the modern art movie instead. Sternberg then went into retirement, during which he wrote his autobiography, Fun in the Chinese Laundry and later served as a teacher at UCLA's film program where his students included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors fame. His films were highly influential on the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Jorge Luis Borges who cited him as his favorite film-maker.


    UsefulNotes/The Pre Code EraThe Smiling Lieutenant
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