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. Read more
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