Josef von Sternberg
By: Jacob Mikanowski | Categories: Cusper, HiLo Heroes, Movies

Von Sternberg, Josef

JOSEF VON STERNBERG (1894–1969) might have been the first underground poet of the studio system. In the 1920s and ’30s he made a string of movies so obsessed with their own artificiality and yet so dedicated to pursuing the truth about sex and desire that they’re unlike anything that’s come before or since. His sensibility as a director combined the melodramatic flair of D.W. Griffith with the cold detachment of a Max Beckmann. His films, with their wildly exuberant set design, fascination with lust and simultaneous disdain and embrace of mass culture, are America’s chief contribution to Weimar art. Sternberg got his start cleaning and repairing film prints; before he was 35, he had made the first independent film and invented the gangster movie. The aristocratic von was an affectation — Sternberg was born into a poor Jewish family in Vienna and grew up shuttling between Austria and New York — but it expressed a truth about his character. He radiated hauteur. Most of his actors couldn’t stand him, the main exception being his great discovery, Marlene Dietrich. He found her in Berlin when he was casting a teenage femme fatale for The Blue Angel. They became one of the greatest duos in film history; she was the Mifune to his Kurosawa; he was Kinski to her Herzog. The films they made together — Morocco, The Scarlet Empress, Shanghai Express, Dishonored, Blonde Venus, The Devil is a Woman — are all about infatuation and sex. In all of them, Sternberg lights Dietrich spectacularly. He makes her glow like a candle. She makes desire look worth losing your head over… or at least worth walking barefoot over desert sands.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: T.H. White, Paul Ehrlich, John F. Kennedy, Kyril Bonfiglioli, G.K. Chesterton.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.

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Jacob Mikanowski is a writer and historian based in Chicago. He writes about movies, books, and Europe east of the Rhine.