For The Icon, The Shadow, and The Glimmer Between: 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Singular works of rare frankness, scathing, melancholy & hungry for a beauty as cynical as the prostitutes & killers who lead their stories.
Daniel Kasman
Above: Betty Compson and George Bancroft in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York (1928).  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
George Bancroft, that clay lump of an actor, is not Marlene Dietrich; it seems obvious but it's true.  Neither is Emil Jannings, another majestically bulky silent star.  Yet after the new set of silent films directed by Josef von Sternberg are released by The Criterion Collection, the fickle tides of film history and cinephilia may shift again, away from Sternberg's famed evocations of female glamour and towards heavyset giants lit like Caravaggios under Klieg lights.
No other auteur is so associated in his auteurship with an actor than Sternberg with Dietrich (I often seem to refer to them as Dietrich-Sternberg, like Straub-Huillet); yet these three films—Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928), with the immovable Bancroft leading the first and the last, sandwiching an Academy Award-winning performance by Emil Jannings in the middle film—have everything one loves and some hate about the director's most famous films, the ones he made with Dietrich.  This silent trio feature the familiar story structure of nearly all Sternberg features, the atmosphere running thick with worldly cynicism, beautiful faces, stoic and mask-like, tests of belief and sublime gestures of faith.  And for all the beauty of the Dietrich-Sternberg cycle, these three films frame these iconic—rather than realistic—people and their world of seedy decadence (and decadent seediness) with the director's magnificent dedication—more startling in 2010 no doubt than the late 1920s, which was a pinnacle for the art of the moving picture—to visual abstraction, the pictorial pleasure of cinema's two dimensional plane, and the shimmer of emulsion across the lit and unlit material textures recorded by the camera.  These are Sternberg films through and through, but more importantly they are singular works of rare beauty and frankness, scathing and melancholy, hungry for a beauty as cynical as the prostitutes and killers who lead their stories.
For those who are drawn to the cagey, stiff presentation and opulent mysteries of the Dietrich-Sternberg films, these will please you to no end.  For those who can't stand the frigid mask of Dietrich in those pictures, these three male-oriented dramas will provide the director's awesome highlights without the iconic unease produced by his favorite muse.  And for those poor folks who have yet to indulge in this most perverse and beautiful of Hollywood directors, this set should momentarily jolt the Sternberg stock in the English-language sphere and hopefully, I pray, prompt an indulgence into his art.  Below you will find a brief survey of the three films, including three studies in images of some of their language, tendencies, and pleasures.
Underworld, the director's first success and considered a genre pioneer, nevertheless seems late to the game to chronicle the Capone-gangster image, even if the 1927 picture is supposedly the first gangster film.  By the time George Bancroft is playing a local hood with unstoppable bulk and surprisingly good natured bluster he seems a small-time romantic image doomed in the face of a modernity not in Sternberg's picture (from a story by Ben Hecht) but surrounding it in the society and in the cinema of the era.
Across the pond, Fritz Lang has already posited his Dr. Mabuse as a mysterious all powerful figure commanding crime and society; a year after Underworld comes Lang's update of the Mabuse figure, Spies, where the gangster is absorbed into and dispersed through capitalism.  Underworld's lone hoodlum on the block and his small group of intimates already seemed dated and iconic in their simple stoicism, and there is something of an elegy in the film's sparse simplicity.  Despite supposedly starting the vogue for the Pre-Code gangster genre, leading to Hawks' masterpiece Scarface (1932) and Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931),among others, the film seems less enmeshed in or sprung from cultural zeitgeist as those films or the Lang epics as it is a pure, concentrated dose of iconography, the language in which all Sternberg films move.  Sternberg's icons exist between reality and symbolism, referring to the former but distanced from it, nearly divorced from the world but not yet in the realm of symbolic representation.  Bare rooms, clear, singular characters, and austerity reign in this lonely, edgeless picture of dark city streets, an anonymous anywhere studio urbanity like that of Lang's M (1930) or Mamoulian's City Streets (1931), a tale set everywhere and nowhere.
If anyone still thinks they can criticize Sternberg's cinema in relation to its roots in reality, look no further than this honing of a genre, a city, a society to the genre portraiture of three figures caught in a game of swagger and cynicism.  The characters—Bancroft's local Robin Hood-by-way-of-Capone criminal, oddly cheery and full of braggadocio until you betray his mask of superior philanthropy and reveal a psychotic menace underneath; Clive Brook's Sternberg stand-in, effete, a deprecating intellectual; and Evelyn Brent's moll, "Feathers"—live not by psychology but by vivacity, the force of their image, the icon, who they stand for yet also who they embody: the boss, the right-hand man, the foundling, the gangster's girl.  Behind the crime setting the film is the most relationship-y of all Sternbergs; it is less concerned with plot than the dynamics of friendship and social debts owed between the three, as Brooks and Brent hold off on consummating their love affair because Bancroft set them up in the world.
Undeworld's details are those of a relationship film not a crime movie: Brooks and Brent finding a corner in a party to have an intimate conversation, her boyfriend passed out drunk, a pause in the drama while Bancroft sits and considers who has betrayed whom (as a kitten licks his finger!), gestures of obsequiousness and subservience for kindnesses owed to the gangster hero, the fury of violence (and it is a very violent film) when respect is not paid.  Gestures are cruel rather than honorific, the veneer of a working social system within the gangster world broken by betrayals which unmask the pretense of gentlemanliness.  Sternberg always gets to the roots of his iconic actors by showing them as unflappably set in their ways and beliefs only to strip down their defenses to reveal a truth behind the savvy, the cynicism, the distance.  When Bancroft's faith in his friends is shaken, the film dissolves into a smoke and shrapnel filled climax of ricocheting bullets and holocaust (pointing back, again, to Lang's first Mabuse film), and the final gesture of faith between the lead and his co-stars—which is a must for most Sternberg pictures—occurs in this most abstract and intimate of settings in this most restrained and singular of pictures.  Amidst the gunbursts and coughing smoke all society and setting fades and we see nothing but iconic faces mugging surprise, forgiveness, respite, sacrifice.
An incomplete visual guide to Sternberg's Underworld:
• One of Sternberg's first "masks" (and not particularly different from Dietrich's haughty demeanor), what his lead characters present to the public—George Bancroft's robber's braggadocio:
• A Sternberg Lesson:  The mask...
...and the reality behind it.  (Nearly all Sternberg films are a search for a display of the truth behind the false.)
• The Sternberg male archetype, as strong as the female/Dietrich one:
• And let us not forget Sternberg's lovely abstractions!:
(Note, below, the focus is pulled so that the actor, Brooks, is out of focus but the party streamers are in focus!  What a director!)
• The kind of detail that within Underword's austere drama carries surprising, unexpected emotional weight, a bar corner Brooks finds at a party:
• A reverse of the intimate bar corner, a couple's self-rejection, they can't betray a friend!  Resignation and cynical acceptance are key aspects of Sternberg's archetypal stories.
• Remember the blustery Bancroft, seen several images up?  Here's the real Bancroft of Underworld, the mask dropped, the maniac violence remaining (Nicholson emulates this transformation very nicely in The Shining, which seems to quote from some of the sequence below):
• A hint of things to come, the abstract pleasures of night-cloaked violence, smokey ejaculations, bodies of chiaroscuro:
• A moment of meditation (and how cats make any movie/scene better):
• Poetic annihilation into abstraction, a common ending of Sternberg films:
• All arguments should be amidst a gun fight (and obscure shape-shifting scenery cloaked in charcoal fog):
• Bancroft and his moll may be fighting (during a fight!) but the powerful iconicity of the images below hints at why the couple got along so well in the first place:
• And finally, the Sternberg End, the revelation of an amazing, absurd gesture of faith.  Clive Brooks returns (not shown) to the gangster's besieged hideout to free his boss from the madness, and George Bancroft is thunderstruck at the capacity of gestures in a human being.  His shock immediately humanizes Sternberg's ashen images:
The Last Command, the most prestigious and straightforward film in the set, is the least satisfying despite its resplendent textures, darting scope (WWI - The Czar - Hollywood - Soviets!), and bizarre, iconographic analogies.  Throughout his career, Sternberg was equally attracted to squalor and decadence—an attraction that leads to the often noted sadomasochism of many of the plots of his films—and his interest in aristocracy, while going to far greater stylistic, baroque lengths in The Scarlet Empress (1934), will never again achieve the grandeur of this film.
The story funnels a whole lot into the Sternberg Debasement Machine (cf. The Blue Angel and The Devil Is a Woman), namely Emil Jannings, the Russian revolution, and Hollywood movie making, and produces an unfortunately tidy little arc.  Jannings plays an aristocratic general who falls from his aristo-militaristic decadence during World War I to end up as an extra on a Hollywood set playing a Russian general under the direction of a ex-revolutionary he met back in the Motherland (!).  The ending is the ultimate expression of Sternberg's search behind the mask of actors (and humans) to find some kind of truth in gesture—that is, belief translated into actions recognized by others.  While back in Russia the upper class is exposed  through revolutionary upset as being nothing but a series of empty and exchangeable iconic signifiers (fur coat, cigarettes, pompous attitude), the Hollywood machine reveals that acting can indeed express core values beyond artifice (see the final two shots in the images below).  And this from the supposedly most artificial of directors!  Sternberg's best films stage combat between the heightened aestheticism of the mise-en-scène and the story's path to revealing something meaningful within the staged artifice.
And artifice it is indeed; The Last Command is Paramount simply pumping money into Sternberg's grim flurry of a "class struggle."  The sumptuousness in detail is a far cry from Underworld's blackhole mise-en-scène.  If one feels yawns coming on from the massive drawing rooms Jannings hams his way through as he seduces a revolutionary girl (Evelyn Brent again, nice in furs and good at snarling to the masses, but not much else), just count all the setups, lighting changes, textures of the props, and so on, at the disposal of this master stylist who, by the mid-30s, will be relegated to frighteningly sparse productions.  One might even type The Last Command as spend crazy, or perhaps Jannings had too much star heft (and other heft), for the film, for all its snowy shadows, is plodding and obvious, set as it is from the get-go on comeuppance.  It's not until Morocco (1930) that Sternberg seems able to control every shade and intonation of an epic recreation of a foreign land.
• Where the breadline, jobline, waiting-for-the-factory-to-open, and Sternberg's compositional abstraction all meet: the extras gate at a Hollywood studio—
• Some kind of class commentary: Hollywood equips their extras/workers with fake weapons—
• One of the key mysteries to this generally un-mysterious film: we've already seen the extras who are to be used for crowd scenes in a Russia-set epic.  Sternberg cuts to revolutionary-era this real or artifice, are the blobby dots in this nearly constructivist composition the same extras we saw being equiped with costumes and weapons, above?
• A unique entity in the cinema (or is it?): a revolutionary who'll turn Hollywood auteur (played by William Powell)—
• The female is not yet the lead of a Sternberg picture but the motifs are the same: documentation emphasizes the allure and the unknowability of her person, just like Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) or Dishonored (1931):
• No one, and I mean no one, knew how to photograph women as well as Josef von Sternberg.  The film stops for a second for a portrait of Evelyn Brent:
• The mask of decadence:
• Somewhat behind the mask; or, the mask in private repose:
• A great detail: Jannings' general takes a smoke in order to give Evelyn Brent a moment to go to her room and prepare for his arrival and his seduction (also an excuse to show post-party detritus)—
• A brief glimpse behind Jannings' mask, soon to be strippped:
• Sternberg's interest in the Russian revolution is pictorial and allegorical (see the similarities behind the shot below and the later shot of the assistant director yelling at the extras):
• Revolutionaries are gunned down but again the emphasis is less on the tragedy (realism) than the look (iconicity), the abstract composition the crumpled bodies make:
• Evelyn Brent, from revolutionary moll (see the shot a couple images up of her with William Powell), to picture on government ID, to Jannings' plaything, to this, below.  Which is the real Brent?
• The Sternberg Debasement Machine now in full swing, ready to humiliate another arrogant male (but let's not forget compositions!):
• Now it's the officers' turns to be shot.  The blasé, cynical Sternberg considers similarities in behavior, and then moves on to photograph a beautiful frame:
• The real Jannings, mask of aristocracy stripped:
• Hollywood as revolutionary Russia?  Hollywood as oppressive Czar-dom?  Back to the studio, where an AD commands fake troops like the revolutionary commanded the masses.
• And William Powell is no longer a revolutionary but an auteur:
• And while the revolutionary has put on a mask, the aristocrat, now an extra on a movie set, pumped full of fake costumes, medals, and lighting by the artifice of Hollywood, sublimely reveals his true belief (compare to ending shots of Underworld, seen above):
Underworld is certainly this lavish director's most concentrated expression.  And while some may see Sternberg's exiled swan song The Saga of Anatahan as his purest work, one of severe, exotic studio bound artifice, it is his final silent picture, The Docks of New York which combines the oneric-slick simplicity of his final film with the focus and asceticism of his first success.  Opening with the most rich and sensual images of the silent era, found in the depths of hell in the stoker's pit of a ship bound for the Manhattan docks, the 1928 film, running a bare 70-some minutes, gives the most straightforward of Sternberg's allegories of faith-filled gesture.  The most heroic are the most world-weary, and gestures of love and belief are the only true currency between such cynics; that's why the most ecstatic gestures of Sternberg's pictures—Dietrich marching off into the pit of sands in Morocco or her giving up her child in Blonde Venus (1932)—can only occur when expressed by the most embittered unbeliever of them all.
Docks, the penultimate film Sternberg made before Dietrich was found and his life and cinema changed forever, marks a key transition between the male-starring films that preceded the presence of the muse and the female-centric pictures that re-made Sternberg's name.  That is: while this is another—and the finest—George Bancroft picture, the man and woman (Betty Compson) are nearly on equal footing, nearly equal in "experience," in cynicism, in sarcasm, doubt, and solitary perseverance.  So of course halfway through the picture they up and get married, and we get to stay around to see if it sticks.
It's as simple as that.  Three locations: the stoker's hell, the wormy, bacchanalian writhings of a sole (the only? the ever?) dockside tavern, and the bare domiciles nearby perched over the foggy, sludgy edge of the world.  No wonder in this film you are either having too much fun or are suicidal.  And no wonder, in this movie which rides its single brilliant idea through the oily muck of the falsest and truest of New York pictures, that the one for fun (Bancroft) and the one for death (Compson) get hitched on a whim and are forced to confront their doubts and hopes and honor in the textures of squalor.
• Possibly the most beautiful set in silent Hollywood history, the stoker's hold:
• Who says Sternberg doesn't have some realism in him?  What other filmmaker would introduce his star as the sooty, raggedly, greasy object of male eroticism as he does Bancroft here?
• The steamy dreams of stokers:
• This film has without a doubt Bancroft's most nuanced and human performance (no sarcasm intended):
• Outside the ship, despair beckons in the oil-slick allure of the sea:
• This unflattering and highly abstract shot of Betty Compson saved from drowning prompts a good gesture from Bancroft.  Talk about a gesture of faith!  In the night and fog of the docks, we see glimpses of goodness.
• The world in which nothing but cynicism and sin remain (well, maybe also geometry and shadows):
• Betty Compson, getting as close to Dietrich as one can.  Sweeter, though:
• Here it is again, the mask that suggests our hero just doesn't give a damn about anything.  How can a man like him do anything with true, human feeling (the ultimate Sternberg question)?
• A concentrated location lends for great doses of dense pictorial pleasures:
• Recognizing that she owes Bancroft for saving him, Betty ties a neckerchief around her hero, in what one may recognize as a typical Dietrich way.  It's a performance; she's performing for the tavern her claim on this man.  But note her eyes: she's not doing this gesture for Bancroft as a human but rather for him as a social entity; the feeling in her eyes is weary, knowing cynicism.  Bancroft may gain stature amongst the bar inhabitants but the gesture is just for show, there is no real feeling is behind it:
• More notes of realism, look at this bar maid!
• Sternberg can be as generous with his photography of his men as his women.  Ptooey to "the gaze"!
• More show, no feelings (note a detail: they are having coffee and sandwiches, not alochol):
• Remember, this guy decided to take care of his little drowned girl and she tied a neckerchief around his neck, but this shot reveals the truth about the affection and feelings behind those gestures:
• Anticipating a leap of faith.  This shot preceeds a marriage proposal!:
• No one believes in anything, especially love, at least not this crowd:
• The crowd-audience-wedding-guests-subjects-for-composition:
• Bancroft is pleased at the public reaction to his wanton gesture to marry Betty.  She, on the other hand, decides to take the offer seriously, and taking a very human leap of faith.  It's one public act of many for him; for her, a chance at something "real."  Sternberg quietly spells out the differing attitudes in the shot below:
• By the end of the night, both are touched, but only momentarily, and on the edge of the world:
• The morning after, grim realities: marriages don't work, the world is an awful place full of betrayal—
• A prevalent motif in post-WWI films—the bad luck of lighting three cigarettes in a row with a single match—provides an excuse for a study of world weariness in mask-like portraiture:
• A fresh match but still no feeling of luck:
• The film's final gesture, ending as it does, like in Sternberg's Dreiser adaptation An American Tragedy (1931), in a court room, is less epic, iconic, and satisfying than many of Sternberg's other films.  The Docks of New York's final poetry comes instead from the scenes right before this ending, splitting Compson's despair at being left alone into daylight and Bancroft's uncertain resumption of his solitary life into the stoker's darkness:
The Region 1 DVD set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is available through The Criterion Collection.


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