Director Josef von Sternberg and actor Marlene Dietrich fashioned films together that feel more vitally strange and neurotic than ever before, now that mainstream cinema has been tamed by corporations to follow a set of generically empowering tropes as rigid as the rules of any production code. Taming, in fact, is also the driving action of von Sternberg and Dietrich’s films. In Germany, their joint breakthrough was The Blue Angel, which remains an astonishingly cruel examination of a male’s fear of having his lust and loneliness turned against him by a sexual superior. The six American films that von Sternberg and Dietrich made in the wake of The Blue Angel’s success, starting in 1930 with Morocco and concluding in 1935 with The Devil Is a Woman, similarly utilize gender subjugation to explore the essential social divide between men and women. These films aren’t as cathartically sadistic as The Blue Angel, which offered a cleansing exorcism of the mutual resentments existing between the genders, though they have a lingering, more internalized dream power. Their sadism is buried beneath the surface.
These American films—Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman—also reflect another kind of taming. In the early 1930s, the Production Code was gradually taking shape, reining in not only the content of films, but their attitudes as well, ushering in Hollywood’s moralistic, heteronormative streak. This development would lead to Dietrich and particularly von Sternberg becoming passé, seen as European outcasts in an American landscape that began to insist on unceasing proclamation of the values of family and patriotism.
One can see von Sternberg and Dietrich inventing new ways to play their erotic music as the Production Code was being more rigorously enforced. Morocco and 1931’s Dishonored are more openly bawdy than The Devil Is a Woman, which expresses its unbridled sensuality through a combination of set décor and wardrobe that’s almost alien. At one point, Dietrich’s character appears to be wearing an Egyptian headdress—never mind that we’re in fin de siècle Spain—and her visage is heartbreakingly soft. No wonder the film’s two male protagonists nearly kill one another trying to have her.
Though the films make loose pretenses of being set in real places against historical backdrops, they’re rooted in a fantasy realm in which Man and Woman play out a sex game that at once subverts and expresses the strictures of a caste-ridden society. Dietrich cumulatively plays one character, rather than six, across the set of films: that of Marlene Dietrich, warrior artist who uses male vulnerability to her advantage, transcending traditional female pigeonholing. In all these American films, Dietrich plays an iconoclast, usually a notorious femme fatale and stage performer who shares a past with male characters who are played by such impressive stars as Gary Cooper, Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant, Herbert Marshall, and Cesar Romero. Usually Dietrich’s characters are provided two men per film to spar with: one a schmuck unworthy of her powers, who’s blessed with the humility to recognize this truth, and one a primordial hunk of masculinity who’s capable of rising to the challenge of her beauty and unsentimental intelligence.
These films are governed by ritualistic plotting and staging that parallels the ritualism of even progressive sexual relations. The nearly pointillist precision of Dietrich’s movements contrasts with von Sternberg’s maximalist determination to create a filmic style worthy of his muse. Von Sternberg is Dietrich’s greatest and most neurotic suitor, seemingly capable of changing even his star’s genetic code. In Morocco, Dietrich is still the fleshy cherub of The Blue Angel, but by the time of The Devil Is a Woman, she’s grown lankier and more angular, those angles suggesting the thorns of a human rose. That angularity is also evident in 1932’s Shanghai Express, when Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is legendarily framed looking up toward the ceiling, cloaked in darkness, her face emitting a heavenly mournful light.
These films, when watched in succession, reveal patterns, forging an über-narrative of a woman bound to live the same story over and over again. With the notable exception of 1934’s The Scarlet Empress, the Dietrich character succumbs to a man, unbelievably, at the end of each film so that she may reestablish her independence by the beginning of the next narrative only to fall for the same trap again. This pattern abounds in the notion of a woman who submits out of exhaustion from holding the wolves at bay, refuting an element and irony of her power: that she’s completed by the stereotypes that men force her to play, particularly that of the femme fatale, which provides her a pretense for her to create an art of performance and roleplay.
Throughout these films, seemingly endless motifs also suggest a fluidity of identity within Dietrich’s persona that perpetually solidifies and dissolves in infinitum. In Morocco, Dietrich’s Mademoiselle Amy Jolly is becoming in a tuxedo, clearly enjoying the women watching her, though by the end of the film she becomes a legionnaire’s (Gary Cooper) willing lover, trailing behind him in the desert with soldiers’ wives. As Helen Faraday (a.k.a. Helen Jones), Dietrich rediscovers a tux in 1932’s Blonde Venus, extending to another chorus girl a startling gesture of sexual familiarity as she assumes the stage, though she submits again to the rules of a housewife. In The Devil Is a Woman, Dietrich’s Concha Perez evades a man by ascending a staircase resembling the one that leads to death and torture in Shanghai Express.
Sometimes, these patterns are pointedly contradicted or re-contextualized. In the six films that von Sternberg and Dietrich made in America, there’s no sight more alarming than that of Dietrich as a housewife in the first half of Blonde Venus. Initially, von Sternberg’s compositions are correspondingly plain, at least by his standards, though the film gradually grows cluttered and surreal as Dietrich’s character goes on the run, effectively allowing herself to become a classic Dietrich heroine. By the end of the film, Dietrich is hiding in a shelter that’s right out of von Sternberg’s dreams, abounding in his usual scrims, veils, shutters, webs, animals, and frames within frames within frames.
Occasionally, von Sternberg and Dietrich’s formalisms seem to be in competition with one another. It’s ironic that The Scarlet Empress is the one film in which the Dietrich character refuses to submit to a man, as it’s also the film in which von Sternberg’s poetry comes closest to swallowing the actor alive. Audacious even for Sternberg, the film is full of ghoulishly comic statues that suggest characters’ repressed, calcified desires, with tableaux that seem to be set in a garish, extraordinary hell and epic sequences that revel in the elaborate transmission of political power. (Dietrich is also uncharacteristically upstaged in this film by another actress, Louise Dresser, who gives a delicious comic turn as the perturbed Empress Elizabeth Petrovna.)
Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s American films have often been derided as camp, and such an attitude springs from the presumption that art should be good for you, with declarative themes and “realistic” stylization. Von Sternberg and Dietrich fashioned instead a fantasy world that embodies the longing that drives one to cinema: for a grandeur that invites our complicity with icons, rendering our anxieties into pop myth. In their unreality, these six films elucidate our sexual hungers as well as the miscommunications and insecurities that often prevent said hungers from being satiated.
There are inconsistencies in the images of these restorations that indicate the challenge of refurbishing old films without losing their essence. Image clarity varies across the six discs, though the softness is often beautiful and at least partially intentional. Certain elements, such as rainfall, are rendered with a piercing clarity, as are many close-ups of the films’ many unforgettable faces. The multilayered depth of these images is phenomenal, as is most evident in the stairway scenes in Shanghai Express and The Devil Is a Woman, as well as in the hallucinatory musical numbers of Blonde Venus and the nearly cubist gothic interiors of The Scarlet Empress. The monaural soundtracks are sturdy, particularly in communicating the varied diegetic noises of von Sternberg’s bustling sets, though dialogue is occasionally muddy and eclipsed by the films’ scores. Generally, though, these are glistening, dazzlingly well-detailed preservations of some of the most stylish films ever created.
It’s difficult to communicate the beauty of these six films together in words, and critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin circumvent this problem by offering an evocative juxtaposition of quotations and film footage in their video essay Bodies and Spaces, Fabric and Light. López and Martin manage to elucidate the existential loss of identity that’s communicated by Josef von Sternberg’s obsession with ornamentation, and their work here is one of this package’s highlights. Meanwhile, several new documentaries elaborate on how The Blue Angel brought von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich to America, where their styles quickly evolved. Von Sternberg is portrayed as a control freak and self-conscious myth maker, while Dietrich is shown to be a brilliant chameleon, a master of several languages who could suggest a woman from everywhere and nowhere and thusly embody von Sternberg’s obsession with creating an essentially borderless fantasy zone.
An interview with film scholar Homay King acknowledges the racial quandaries of such fantasies, as applied in this case to the orientalism of Shanghai Express. In another interview, von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas, talks of his father’s influence on his own photography, parsing von Sternberg’s aesthetic in the process. This package includes a variety of other odds and ends, most notably a booklet with three astute and poetic essays by Imogen Sarah Smith, Gary Giddins, and Farran Smith Nehme. One does wonder, however, about the set’s lack of even a single audio commentary, and why several discs are unaccompanied by features pertaining directly to the individual films. For instance, only Morocco gets a making-of supplement. Though there’s quite a bit to savor in this set, it doesn’t quite achieve definitive status.
This rapturous package affirms the profound emotional power of the art born from one of Hollywood’s most influential and idiosyncratic collaborations.