Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) has already been represented in this series by The Docks of New York (1928) and Morocco (1930). After The Blue Angel and Morocco, Sternberg went on to make five more semi-autobiographical films with his star and lover, Marlene Dietrich. In my judgment, the best of these were Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, and the confessional The Devil Is a Woman. The films starring his “discovery,” Dietrich, are the centerpiece of the director’s career and represent perhaps the highest point achieved in cinema’s early sound era.
The Devil Is a Woman is something of a translation of the Sternberg/Dietrich relationship into visual poetry and metaphor. Dietrich steadfastly maintained that it was her favorite of the films they made together, and many observers have commented on the obvious physical similarity between Sternberg and his two male protagonists, Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero. The film is neither as warm as Morocco nor as accessible as The Blue Angel. If it is perhaps the most perfect film ever made in some ways, its very precision conveys a coldness, a diamond-like hardness; the romanticism of Morocco transformed into cynical introspection and fatalism. If Sternberg is any closer to understanding Dietrich, he is unwilling to solve the puzzle for the audience; the film remains one of the most beautifully realized enigmas in the history of the cinema. If, as Ernest Hemingway said, Dietrich knew more about love than anyone, let us not forget her insistence that Sternberg taught her everything she knew. Indeed, in his marvelously entertaining autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg comments, “No puppet in the history of the world has been submitted to as much manipulation as a leading lady of mine who, in seven films, not only had hinges and voice under control other than her own but the expression of her eyes and the nature of her thoughts.” Elsewhere he says, “Miss Dietrich is me – I am Miss Dietrich.”
The complexity of their relationship may be reflected in the film’s ornate style but not in its plot. One of the great virtues of The Devil Is a Woman, and one of the problems it has with audiences, is its compactness. There are no melodramatic subplots, as there are in Shanghai Express, to cushion the blows or sugarcoat the pill. The film is as raw as the emotions it portrays, as raw as the wounds Dietrich blithely inflicts.
Dietrich was to go on to work for other world-class directors (Borzage, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Lang, Wilder, Welles), but she occasionally called out for “Jo” in a moment of desperation. She survived a period of “box office poison,” performed heroics at the front in the struggle to destroy her former countrymen, and did her extraordinary cabaret act in clubs and as “the Queen of Broadway.” In spite of everything, she always acknowledged her debt to Sternberg. The two actually appeared together at MoMA in the late 1950s. One afternoon in the 1970s, I returned from lunch to be told that Marlene Dietrich was calling me from Paris. In disbelief, I heard a slightly woozy voice (cocktail hour in Paris) requesting any documentation we might have from this appearance. (She was becoming involved in the production of Maximilian Schell’s documentary, Marlene). In the course of humble and awed compliance, I mentioned that I had written a small book about her and her films, which I would also send her. A short time later, I received back a handwritten letter thanking me and telling me “not to worry about all the mistakes in my book. You probably copied them from somebody else’s book.” I was thrilled.
After breaking with Dietrich, Sternberg’s career plummeted, only recovering spasmodically until his retirement in the 1950s. The Depression and World War II left the world with little inclination toward romantic mythology, and television would mostly sweep visual grandeur off the screen. For less than a decade, he was one of the Kings of Hollywood, and we can be grateful that most of his best work has been saved, although several of his silent films are missing.
Take note that our Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares show opens this week, featuring several lesser-known but important German films from the years 1919 to 1933. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to catch up on one of the cinema’s greatest periods.