Here's a little secret about Josef von Sternberg: the man's talent and reputation for baroque pictorialism in the cinema, for emphasizing only the nearly-abstract beauty of shapes and light in his compositions, drastically underestimates the importance of story and character in his films. Saying he plays up artificial visuals over the drama of his films assumes that Sternberg is making realistic movies, as Hollywood understood the term in the 1930s. This is not the case.
The above clip is from Shanghai Express (1932), and of course the first thing we notice is Sternberg's artifice: stilted line readings, the voluptuous softness of the light, the contour of the shapes, Marlene Dietrich's glowing curls, the wind's rustling of her fur collar. Trite sentiments are passed back and forth as Clive Brook remains scornful and aloof of Dietrich, his old fling, bitter that Dietrich has become a slut. Dietrich trades line for line, just as cold and distant, using flippant playfulness just as Brook uses callous, wooden acting for the same purpose—to avoid showing their real faces.
All surface, as the criticism goes. But plot of the film is about Brook scorning Dietrich, his love, because she seems to be a different woman (a slut, not the girl he fell for). And the wonderful setting for this story of doubting love is all about spies and alter egos, forged documents and murky pasts. As in all Dietrich-Sternberg films, the story is about deception. So why do we write off Sternberg for having an artificially beautiful, or in other words, deceptively beautiful mise-en-scene? The criticism (or call it damning praise) does not take into account that all throughout this scene, as we bask in the splendor of the photography and trip over the dialog, we are supposed to be looking for something beyond the beauty, past the artifice. The fundemental question Sternberg poses with the six movies in his whirlwind cycle of films with Marlene Dietrich is: behind this cold, aloof, "experienced," weathered, cynical icon ("Marlene Dietrich," star), is there anything true, anything really true?
Thus both actors with their clichéd , almost mechanical gestures, Sternberg's stilted lines for Brook, the weirdly rhythmic direction of Dietrich's line readings, the resplendence of the soft photography—all are dramatically in tune with Shanghai Express' story of a man who doubts the true nature of his past fling, and a woman who is as unsure about herself, now, as she is about others' views of her. The film, like Clive Brook and even like Dietrich herself, cloaks its/their uncertaintly about truth with the knowingness, the cynicism, the distance, the irony of artifice.
But look closer. The movement of Dietrich's jaw at 0:56 is a real gesture, one of reproach and bitterness, and is far different than the constant coy flicking of her eyes, always side to side, patronizing and playful. We are getting closer to truth. At 1:12 Dietrich asks Brook if he "tried very hard" to find someone to take her place, and the upturn of her voice at the end of the question again is getting farther away from artifice, suggesting a whimsical, or at least imaginative, sadness over the lovers Brook has had since her. But Sternberg pictures, like the Dietrich character herself, are literally piled with artifice, and so even a normally expressive act like a kiss (at 2:01) begins as mechanically as the lighting of a cigarette (hand on jacket, remove hat, lean forward). By 2:10, Dietrich's close-up before the kiss, she is frozen, dead-eyed, gorgeous. This kiss means...nothing? No wait, at 2:19, a split second before the embrace, her eyes give and maybe, just maybe, she is human, or at least true to her emotions. Before we can tell, Sternberg cuts to the train's whistle, an artificial intrusion cutting short our potential revelation. Return to the couple and Brook is immediately dismissive and suspicious, the moment broken, doubt and deceit returning. So Marlene closes back up, puts on Brook's hat and starts play acting again, the mask returned, the games begin again, and artifice reigns supreme with a flick of a cap: "Will you never learn to believe without truth?" Indeed, that's what all Dietrich-Sternberg pictures are asking. The secret is that while you ask Shanghai Express if there is any truth to it, Sternberg is posing that question inside the film itself.
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