On March 31, 1930, Marlene Dietrich appeared on the stage of Berlin’s Gloria Palast for the premiere of The Blue Angel before sailing that very night for America to work on Morocco. The director of both films, Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), had long since departed, expecting never to see the actress again. Yet in the bon voyage basket she had given him was a copy of Benno Vigny’s Amy Jolly, a story Dietrich labeled “weak lemonade.” From this lemonade Sternberg drew Morocco, and he arranged for Dietrich to be signed by Paramount to star in what would become his warmest and best film.
The early talkie was a slave to the immobile microphone, enclosed in a bulky soundproof booth. Most filmmakers succumbed to the public fixation on dialogue, and paid little heed to the once all-important visual quality of their films. A few directors dabbled in sound experimentation, achieving eccentric effects that at least relieved some of the tedium and suggested possibilities for the creative use of sound. Among his other contributions, Sternberg was the first director to attain full mastery and control over what was essentially a new medium by restoring the fluidity and beauty of the late silent period. One of the key elements in this was his understanding of the value of silence itself. Morocco contains long sections sustained only by its stunning visual beauty, augmented with appropriate music and aural effects. Sternberg was the first artist to make an authentic virtue of the arrival of sound.
Furthermore, the very exotic nature of the film’s locale liberated Sternberg’s Romanticism. From the first spectacular shots of the Foreign Legion marching past bare-breasted natives and arrogant camels, it is evident that what is to follow is to be at the very least a stunning display of stylistic imagination. This style relies on dazzling camera movement, delicately textured effects of light and shadow, expressive décor, and precise gesture on the part of his high-powered cast: Dietrich, Gary Cooper, and Adolphe Menjou. All of these elements come together in the director’s brilliant conjuration of a sultry, crackling ambience, in which his actors obsess over their sexual desires.
The triangulated relationship between Cooper, Dietrich, and Menjou provides Morocco with a unique level of tension to its very last shot. Such an intangible commodity as dramatic tension is, like other abstractions, almost impossible to discuss adequately with mere words. Yet this is the stuff of Sternberg’s narrative genius—the visualization of emotionally obsessive sexual relationships, embellished by milieu, and expressed through the subtle movement of the most intricate of human organs: eyes, mouths, hands, etc.In 2001, I lectured on the film in Rabat, Morocco, at a film conference. I fear that many of the local Moroccans didn’t get it. Of course, Sternberg’s depiction of Morocco is not exactly sensitive or sympathetic. It is, however, picturesque, and since this particular director has never been accused of interest in social commentary, his respectful visualization of the otherness of Morocco may be vindication in itself. As Sternberg would soon sumptuously stylize the Chinese Revolution in Shanghai Express (1932), his ravishingly ersatz Morocco compensates for its geopolitical superficiality with its baring of the director’s artistic soul. And the Moroccan government may have been on to something when it advertised in The New York Times: “Representatives of Morocco’s tourist industry hope that visitors will be seduced, just as Gary Cooper was, and will want to return again and again to this country filled with unforgettable landscapes and engaging people.”
The film’s unforgettable ending works dramatically because it comes at a moment of panic, one in a series of such moments that have brought Dietrich to the brink. Sternberg says, “The average human being lives behind an impenetrable veil and will disclose his deep emotions only in a crisis which robs him of control.” Amy Jolly had hidden behind her veil for many years and many men, and her emergence, the sublimation of her fear and pride to her desire, is one of the most supremely romantic gestures in film. It is a measure of contemporary cynicism and decay that no artist today would dare attempt what Sternberg accomplished in 1930.
A reminder that this weekend Manhattan’s Film Forum begins its three-week Charles Chaplin retrospective. If you missed The Circus in our series or want to see it again, it will be shown (with The Idle Class) for a week, beginning July 16, to be followed by City Lights and A Woman of Paris, all in new 35mm prints. Charlie represents the pinnacle of auteurist cinema, and no one will be excused from this assignment.