Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) divided his childhood between his native Vienna and Queens, New York. Before going to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, he learned the rudiments of filmmaking at the studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and in the Army Signal Corps during the Great War. His first film, The Salvation Hunters (1925), was amazingly accomplished, especially considering its miniscule budget. It was, in essence, an independent film, an almost unique specimen in its time. Only the good fortune of capturing the eyes of Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin brought Sternberg out of obscurity and to the attention of the studios. Of his nine silent films, only four survive. These other works (Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York) are so good that one must conclude that Sternberg’s career, more than that of any other director, suffers from the blight on film history we have come think of as “lost-film syndrome.” In a pattern set by The Salvation Hunters, his films deal with complex and painful romantic relationships shot in a stylized manner. While Erich von Stroheim made a false claim to realism, Sternberg was often apologetic for having too closely approximated reality. By the end of his first decade as a director (far and away his most productive period), Sternberg could certainly be considered the cinema’s greatest Romantic artist, rivaled only later by Max Ophuls.
As a studio director, he had to pay some lip service to genre. Underworld (1927) was the first gangster movie, and it was an enormous commercial success (even without the audible machine guns and police sirens that Warner Brothers would soon bring to the genre). The Last Command (1928) was an inside-Hollywood film, depicting a former Czarist Russian general, now a Hollywood extra, brought out of obscurity to command a faux army before the cameras, with fatal consequences. (It was partially for this film that Emil Jannings won the first male acting Oscar, while Sternberg’s film shared the “best picture” award with William Wellman’s Wings.)
The Docks of New York (1928) is Sternberg’s first surviving full-scale collaboration with screenwriter Jules Furthman (1888–1960). (Furthman had adapted Underworld and cowritten the now lost The Dragnet with his brother, Charles.) The writer went on to collaborate on six more of Sternberg’s (mostly) finest films, while also beginning a similarly symbiotic relationship with Howard Hawks. Although I would certainly argue for the primacy of the director over the writer, there are instances where the writer is so intrinsically in synch with the director’s vision that their mutual contributions cannot be easily distinguished. It should be said, too, that Furthman’s work with other directors did not measure up to his films with these two giants.
The Docks of New York is probably the last genuinely great silent film made in Hollywood (save for Chaplin’s against-the-grain masterpieces of the 1930s). It largely established the themes and style (camera movement, lyrical lighting effects, etc.) that, I believe, helped to make Sternberg the most important American director of the early sound period. Betty Compson’s performance anticipates in manner and gesture that of Marlene Dietrich in her films under Sternberg’s direction. The sound films, of course, are better able to provide Dietrich and Sternberg with emotional equipoise through the actress’ sophisticated mastery of ironic ambiguity in dealing with her gentlemen, even though the films rely on relatively sparse, often clipped, dialogue. The result is a combination of deeply felt emotional maturity and raw passion not previously seen on the American screen.