Falling in Love Again

The alluring "Marlene & Josef" invites us to rediscover a director's desire for his star

Von Sternberg had two invaluable collaborators on Morocco. One was screenwriter Jules Furthman, a Howard Hawks crony with a gift for crackling innuendo and blithe contrivance. The other was master cinematographer Lee Garmes, who helped the director splash every surface with spider-web patterns of moonlight and night shade. With Garmes, von Sternberg set about creating a world that was ludicrous by the standards of drab realism, yet atmospherically perfect. A lesser director, setting a scene on a boat, might show bounding waves or, God forbid, an actual hull in actual water. Not von Sternberg, who thought it better to shroud a soundstage with fog and netting, place an extra in a naval uniform, and cue the bleat of a foghorn. The setting comes alive in the imagination; the effort turns the viewer into the filmmaker's conspirator. Compared to von Sternberg's breathtaking artifice, naturalism seems the last refuge of a cinematic simpleton.

Garmes and Furthman returned for 1932's delirious Shanghai Express (September 16 and 17), an international thriller of unparalleled lunacy--a parade of Central Casting exotics across an Asia of smudge pots, scrims, and rear projection. Von Sternberg expends almost no energy sustaining the illusion of train travel; the movie's true engine is the surging libido of Dietrich's Shanghai Lily, who sighs, "Don't you find respectable people...dull?" By this point in the collaboration, Dietrich embodied a demimonde far more alluring than the dull status quo personified by the train's snooty passengers.

The star was even more of an outcast in 1932's Blonde Venus (September 18 and 19), in which her character sells herself to a playboy (Cary Grant) for the sake of her ailing husband (Herbert Marshall). Von Sternberg suggests strongly that she's happier with the amiably corrupt Grant character, and that the square, stolid spouse is unworthy of her sacrifice. With Furthman, the director manages to engineer the humiliation of both men while devising a moralistic "happy" ending as transparent as one of his countless decorative veils. Perhaps to show that he could make his marionette do anything, von Sternberg had Dietrich sing a piece of jawdropping minstrelsy called "Hot Voodoo" while cavorting in an ape suit. Was the filmmaker really suggesting, as in The Blue Angel, that his creation belonged to the lowest, most vulgar rung of humanity--the popular entertainer?

That obscure object: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus
That obscure object: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus

The Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration culminated in two masterpieces of endless morbid fascination. The Scarlet Empress (September 19 and 20), a biopic of Catherine the Great, sandwiches set pieces of astounding perversity in between poker-faced title cards; the effect is one of a history assignment interrupted by opium dreams. Amid a welter of coded depravities ("I'm sure I could arrange to have the horses quartered in your bedroom," says a guard to Catherine's mother, slyly alluding to the empress's rumored equine indiscretions), Dietrich's ruler of imperial Russia transforms from traumatized adolescent to insatiable sexual strategist. The movie has been read as von Sternberg's bitter acknowledgment of Dietrich's power and magnetism, even though she's lit with otherworldly radiance. But who is Catherine if not an actress forced to abandon herself to a madman's increasingly ornate and bizarre tableaux?

In their last film together, 1935's The Devil Is a Woman (September 16 and 20), von Sternberg swept them both into a realm of the senses--a setting alluded to as Spain, but actually a fantasyland of total artifice. It's the ultimate von Sternberg world, full of artificial bulls, artificial bullfights, fake trees, and masked men, an avalanche evoked by heaps of backlot snow. In this setting, it makes perfect sense that Dietrich would play "Concha Perez, the toast of Spain," whose bewitching exploits are recounted in flashbacks by a former victim to a future one. She is unrecognizable as the young woman of The Blue Angel; her face is as stylized as a kabuki mask.

Alas, Dietrich and von Sternberg would not work together again. The latter made fewer and fewer films, the last of which was The Saga of Anatahan, a seldom-shown Japanese drama of near-total abstraction, a work of cinematic origami. (His oft-expressed regret was having to use real water.) Dietrich, as her film career waned, became what von Sternberg had made her onscreen, starting with The Blue Angel and Morocco: a nightclub entertainer, a tuxedoed sylph, an icon of shape-shifting sexuality.

After watching their films together, one finds it impossible to think of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg separately. It is said that in her later films Dietrich would begin each take with an audible, "Where are you, Joe?" Von Sternberg, for his part, responded sharply to interviewer Peter Bogdanovich's suggestion that there had ever been another Dietrich. "That is ridiculous," he said. "Miss Dietrich is me. I am Miss Dietrich." Like Miss Havisham shaping Estella for conquest in Great Expectations, the director sent his muse into the world to win men's hearts and to break them. And we're left to revel in the triumph and the wreckage.

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