Von Sternberg Makes Dietrich a Superstar Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a series of seven films from 1930 to 1935, film director Josef von Sternberg created a hauntingly ambiguous myth of womanhood, using Marlene Dietrich as Galatea to his Pygmalion.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1929, Josef von Sternberg was in Germany to film Der blaue Engel (1930; The Blue Angel). Blue Angel, The (film) His involvement in this project, which was under the aegis of the famous Universarium Film studios in Berlin, derived from his earlier collaboration in the United States with the famous German actor Emil Jannings. Jannings, Emil He had directed Jannings in the 1928 film The Last Command, and Jannings was sufficiently impressed to ask for von Sternberg to direct the first German sound film to be made for Universarium with Eric Pommer Pommer, Eric as producer. Von Sternberg agreed, as his career in Hollywood was on the slide; as usual, however, he insisted on having complete control of the project. That control extended to the selection of the female lead to play opposite Jannings. Both Jannings and Pommer supported the casting of either Trude Hesterberg or Lucie Mannheim for the part, but von Sternberg had a specific idea of character, and neither of those women fit his idea. The woman he wanted was someone akin to the woman who comes to the poet in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor as he sleeps. She is the vision of his own soul, her voice speaking “knowledge and truth and virtue.” Von Sternberg found this woman in Marlene Dietrich. [kw]Von Sternberg Makes Dietrich a Superstar (1930-1935) [kw]Dietrich a Superstar, Von Sternberg Makes (1930-1935) [kw]Superstar, Von Sternberg Makes Dietrich a (1930-1935) Motion pictures;Marlene Dietrich[Dietrich] Actors;Marlene Dietrich[Dietrich] Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Josef von Sternberg[Sternberg] [g]United States;1930-1935: Von Sternberg Makes Dietrich a Superstar[07520] [c]Motion pictures;1930-1935: Von Sternberg Makes Dietrich a Superstar[07520] Sternberg, Josef von Dietrich, Marlene Banton, Travis Garmes, Lee

Dietrich became for von Sternberg a summation of the Romantic beauty, the fatal woman whose effect on men is simultaneously liberating and imprisoning. Richly complex, this woman exists as metaphor for the male desire forever frustrated, yet she also represents the woman as Other, as necessarily lonely because the world cannot accommodate such independence and erotic power. She is a fetish, the object of the male gaze and the objectification of his desire. Even Dietrich’s name, “Marlene”—a contraction of her given names Maria and Magdalene—indicates her ambiguity. In his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965), von Sternberg indicated his interest in this fatal woman, especially in her decadent, late nineteenth century form, when he noted that the specifications for the woman he wanted for his film “had been drawn up by Felicien Rops,” a Belgian artist who was popular in the late 1880’s. In Rops’s work, the woman is polymorphously erotic; in her, innocence and experience come together. While attending the theater one night, von Sternberg found the woman he had imagined.

Dietrich, it seems, was reluctant to play the character, Lola-Lola; she thought she was not attractive enough for the part. Indeed, she was, in the words of Herman Weinberg, a “plump, pretty dumpling,” and she conducted herself lethargically at the first interview she had with the film’s director. Von Sternberg, however, persevered, and soon “she behaved as if she were there as my servant. . . . Not the slightest resistance was offered to my domination of her performance.” In her autobiography, Marlene (1989), Dietrich substantiated this, noting that von Sternberg set out to “Pygmalionize” her; she credited him with having “breathed life into this nothingness. . . . I was nothing but pliable material on the infinitely rich palette of his ideas and imaginative faculties.”

Before The Blue Angel was released in the United States, American audiences saw Dietrich in Morocco (1930). Morocco (film) For that film, she had shed thirty pounds, and her face had begun to take on a mysteriously contoured look, as von Sternberg’s camera and lighting played over it with effective shadows. As she had in The Blue Angel, Dietrich played a cabaret singer. In Morocco, she is Amy Jolly, a woman with a past who has traveled to Morocco, the end of the line for her, it seems. Two men seek her affections, the rangy legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) and the suave and wealthy Frenchman LeBressiere (Adolphe Menjou). The plot is simple, even melodramatic: Offered wealth and security by LeBressiere, Amy Jolly turns her back on community and follows her soldier into the desert. More important than the melodramatic plot are the play of light and shadow on the screen and the ambiguous sexuality of Dietrich. In her first appearance in the cabaret, she wears a man’s top hat and tails; in one famous scene, she leans over and plants a kiss on the lips of a giggling girl in the audience.

Dietrich and von Sternberg followed Morocco with a spy thriller, Dishonored (1931), Dishonored (film) in which Dietrich plays a prostitute turned spy known as “X-27.” The story is von Sternberg’s. As Amy Jolly sacrifices a life of leisure and comfort for her man, so too does X-27 sacrifice her life for her lover, Lieutenant Kranau (Victor McLaglen). In this film, von Sternberg extended the range of Dietrich’s character portrayal and her costumes. Cinematographer Lee Garmes made her look like Greta Garbo, like a country maid, and like the Dietrich who would become legendary. Costume designer Travis Banton arrayed her in all sorts of outfits. The film reaches its high point as X-27 faces the firing squad. She takes a blindfold from the young officer who offers it to her, wipes a tear from his eye, then adjusts her makeup and straightens her stockings. Before the sound of the guns, von Sternberg cuts quickly to a close-up of X-27’s enigmatic smile. America’s Depression-era audiences loved it.

After Dishonored, however, Von Sternberg felt that further collaboration would be harmful to both himself and his star. Dietrich disagreed. She refused to work with another director, and Paramount brought the two of them together for Shanghai Express (1932). Shanghai Express (film) The opening of this film is remarkable for von Sternberg’s masterful re-creation of Beijing (then known in the West as Peking), the claustrophobia of its streets echoed in the claustrophobia of train compartments and corridors. Again, Dietrich appears as a woman of questionable behavior. She is Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she tells Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). Unlike Lola-Lola but like the characters in her American films with von Sternberg, the Dietrich character in Shanghai Express may be fallen, but she is not without honor and loyalty. She appears ready to sacrifice herself for her lover, although here von Sternberg is less forthright than in the earlier films. Perhaps more than any other of the von Sternberg-Dietrich films, Shanghai Express captures the mysterious beauty of Dietrich. Garmes won an Oscar for the film’s cinematography, and both the film itself and its director received Academy Award nominations.

As much as von Sternberg’s visual style captures the viewer, especially as it affects the appearance of Dietrich, his use of sound is equally significant. Unlike many in Hollywood who feared the coming of sound to the film industry, von Sternberg welcomed it as another element in the aesthetic effect of film. He avoided the use of background music; instead, he incorporated natural sound into the filmic effect. For example, in Morocco he used no music; instead, the drums of the legionnaires punctuate the action and intensify the emotional effect of the scene in which Amy hears them approach and realizes she must seek out her true lover. In The Blue Angel, sound articulates place: the classroom, the cabaret, the dressing room. The guns that fire to execute X-27 in Dishonored reverberate in the airplane hangar von Sternberg used to film the sequence. In Shanghai Express, the actors speak in monotone to complement the sound of the train. Similarly, the thudding tempo of Dietrich’s “Hot Voodoo” number in Blonde Venus (1932) Blonde Venus (film) accentuates the soap-opera emotionalism of the story.

Blonde Venus is generally taken to be the most autobiographical of von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich. Once again, however, the surface is the thing to catch the eye and interest of the audience. The film shimmers with light right from the opening sequence, in which Dietrich bathes nude in a glittering forest lake. The subtleties of light and shade are once again a cue to the film’s interest in style, and the conventional ending with Dietrich—the film’s Venus—returning to her son and husband is a perfunctory addition. Von Sternberg’s great strength is to present on film both reality and the fantasy world lying deep within his audience. Much of the play with light and shade and enclosed space evokes a dreamworld, but not the dreamworld of Hollywood musicals or comedies. Von Sternberg’s dreamworld is that of the unconscious. He was fascinated with mental aberration, the depths of desire, anxiety, fear, and the urge to violence.

All of this comes together in a baroque manner in the penultimate film von Sternberg made with Dietrich, The Scarlet Empress (1934). Scarlet Empress, The (film) Ostensibly the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, The Scarlet Empress shows von Sternberg at his most excessive: Camera angles, sets, costumes, cutting, and other film techniques draw attention to themselves in every frame. Much of the film offers a shot-by-shot rhythm of frames that alternate between light and dark. The sets are large in scale; gargoyles and grotesque sculptures leer at the viewer from the screen. Dietrich herself is nearly lost in furs or amid sculptures, candles, fog, or smoke. Von Sternberg called the film “a relentless excursion into style.”

After The Scarlet Empress, one film remained in the pair’s collaboration; von Sternberg had done all he could with his Galatea. He would complete only seven films in the next thirty-five years of his life. For her part, Dietrich was also ready to move on. An intelligent and gifted actor and performer, she would have a brilliant career in film and on stage. First, however, the two consummated their artistic relationship with The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Devil Is a Woman, The (film) Once again the costumes were varied and chic. Parades, festivals, confetti, and balloons decorated the screen. Aluminum paint was sprayed onto dresses and backgrounds to give von Sternberg complete control over light. The film is a fitting conclusion to the years of collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich. She called the film their “crowning achievement” and “the most beautiful film that was ever made.”


It is easy to see the influence of von Sternberg’s silent gangster film Underworld (1927); Underworld (film) what is less clear is the influence of the seven films he made with Dietrich. Indeed, these films are strange genre pieces. Later films continued to exploit these familiar genres: the Foreign Legion film, the spy thriller, the journey through dangerous territory, the domestic tragedy, the historical romance. No one else who made such films, however, dismissed plot with such insistence as von Sternberg. Luis Buñuel comes to mind as a director who used formula plots for ideological purposes, but his art was more directly social than von Sternberg’s. For von Sternberg, emotion was style. Perhaps the closest parallel of the time was Busby Berkeley, whose 1930’s musicals dispensed with plot in order to present a choreography of camera, costume, and design.

Von Sternberg’s high-key lighting shows up in many films of the 1930’s, including Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song of Songs (1933), with Dietrich; John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936), with Katharine Hepburn; and Howard Hawks’s Barbary Coast (1935), with Miriam Hopkins. In the 1940’s, the lighting effects von Sternberg used were seen in such Michael Curtiz films as Casablanca (1942), with Ingrid Bergman, and Mildred Pierce (1945), with Joan Crawford; in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), with Bergman; and in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948), with Rita Hayworth. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), with Liza Minnelli, also echoes the costumes and ambience of The Blue Angel. On a more technical level, von Sternberg’s tendency to avoid cutting within scenes, his use of lighting and angles to create mood, and his use of natural sound anticipated the work of Michelangelo Antonioni.

The woman fashioned by von Sternberg continued to serve Dietrich well in many roles, from Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936) to Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Many echoes of her beauty have appeared on the screen, from Joan Crawford to Anouk Aimee. Motion pictures;Marlene Dietrich[Dietrich] Actors;Marlene Dietrich[Dietrich] Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Josef von Sternberg[Sternberg]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, John. The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1971. Provides cogent readings of all von Sternberg’s films. Shows how the stylish aspects of the films make sense thematically. Nicely points out the irony of von Sternberg’s obsession: The woman he fashioned becomes his undoing. Includes select bibliography and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, Peter, ed. Sternberg. London: British Film Institute, 1980. Collection of seventeen articles on von Sternberg’s work dating from 1930 to 1980. Includes the famous essay by Aeneas MacKenzie, “Leonardo of the Lenses,” and essays by Rudolph Arnheim, Siegfried Kracauer, Barry Salt, and von Sternberg himself. The essay on Morocco by the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinema offers a detailed analysis of the film’s social milieu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dietrich, Marlene. Marlene. Translated by Salvator Attanasio. New York: Grove Press, 1989. Covers much of the same ground as von Sternberg’s Fun in a Chinese Laundry (cited below). Dietrich’s admiration for von Sternberg is unbounded, and she has perceptive things to say about lighting and camera work. Opinionated, idiosyncratic, and delightfully candid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarris, Andrew. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Brief, readable survey of von Sternberg’s films includes interesting observations regarding Dietrich’s performances. Accepts von Sternberg’s evaluation of himself as a poet and addresses these films as dream poems to be appreciated for their visual delights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spoto, Donald. Falling in Love Again: Marlene Dietrich. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Presents a brief and useful survey of the years of collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich. Includes many exquisite photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. New York: Collier Books, 1965. Meandering, eccentric, and fascinating account of the author’s life and theory of filmmaking. Not always accurate, but always provocative. With regard to Dietrich, he notes: “I gave her nothing that she did not already have.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Herman G. Josef von Sternberg: A Critical Study. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1967. Valuable for an interview with von Sternberg, a few excerpts from his correspondence, passages from the shooting scripts of Shanghai Express and The Saga of Anatahan (1953), and a good selection of early reviews of von Sternberg’s work. Includes filmography and bibliography.

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