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Overview for Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg


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Also Known As: Jonas Sternberg,Jo Sternberg,Josef Von Sternberg Died: December 22, 1969
Born: May 29, 1894 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Austria Profession: Director ... director writer film cutter film patcher assistant director


Once considered one of Hollywood's premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with "The Salvation Hunters" (1925), "Underworld" (1927) and "The Last Command" (1928). Following the failure of "Thunderbolt" (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel" (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably "Morocco" (1930), "Blonde Venus" (1932), "The Shanghai Express" (1932) and "The Scarlett Empress" (1934). But once "The Devil is a Woman" (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg's collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like "Crime and Punishment" (1935) and "The Shanghai Gesture" (1941), von Sternberg's career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg's influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt's millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on "The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon" (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on "By Divine Right" (1923), before marking his debut as a director on "The Salvation Hunters" (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America's first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like "Exquisite Sinner" (1926), "Underworld" (1927) and "The Last Command" (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann's "The Blue Angel" (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich - particularly when she sang "Falling in Love Again" to a smitten Jannings - which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, "Die Blaue Engel" was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg's Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of "Thunderbolt" (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was "Morocco" (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress' smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg's dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, "Morocco" was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in "Dishonored" (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in "Shanghai Express" (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in "The Scarlett Empress" (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich's ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with "The Devil Is a Woman" (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (1935) before launching an attempt to helm "I, Claudius" in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After "Sergeant Madden" (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed "The Shanghai Gesture" (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, "Macao" (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, "The Saga of Anatahan" (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes' "Jet Pilot" (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

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