Oscar Directors: Von Sternberg, Josef–Background, Career, Awards

Von Sternberg Career Summary:

Occup. Inheritance: No

He was born Josef Sternberg, May 29, 1894 in Vienna, to a poor Orthodox Jewish family–the “von” was added to his name by a Hollywood producer who thought it would sound and look better on the theater marquee.

At the age of seven, he was brought to the U.S., where he received early education in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He subsequently returned to Vienna to complete his schooling but was back in New York at the age of 17, when he found a job with the World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

He gradually advanced to film cutter, writer, assistant director, and advisor to the company’s boss, William S. Brady.  In 1917, he joined the Army Signal Corps and made some training films. After the Armistice, he trav­eled, working as an assistant to various directors, finally settling in Hollywood at age 30, in 1924.

After gaining some experience staging scenes that were unfinished by other directors, Sternberg got together with a young British stage actor, George K. Arthur, who wanted to invest $5,000 to subsidize his own debut. Sternberg had a screenplay ready, The Salvation Hunters, which was shot on location at the docks of San Pedro Bay, on a small bud­get. In its realism, his depiction of the waterfront derelicts was a novelty, leading to Hollywood interest in the new director, who in his very first production demonstrate an original visual style, noted for its interplay of light and shade.

Mary Pickford wanted him to direct her next picture, but they couldn’t agree on a subject or approach and the project was abandoned. Sternberg signed up with MGM, but the studio didn’t like the way he directed his first film, The Exquisite Sinner and assigned it to another director. The same happened with his second project, The Masked Bride, after which his contract was discontinued by mutual consent. Chaplin then asked him to direct a vehicle for his protégé titled The Sea Gull (aka A Woman of the Sea). Sternberg completed the shoot, but Chaplin found the film too sophisticated for lay audiences and it was never released.

Turning Point

The turning point in Sternberg’s career occurred in 1926, when he joined Paramount as assistant director. In the following year, he was assigned to direct Underworld, from a story by Ben Hecht. It was Hollywood’s first serious look at the world of the gangster and it was executed in the Steinberg style, characterized by bold pictorialism and a rather flimsy plot structure. For Sternberg, the film’s visual form was more important than its plot. He used picto­rial compositions and light and shadow effects to illuminate the characters and their motivations and feelings.  Andrew Sarris has said that Sternberg used the camera as a painter’s brush or a poet’s pen.

Steinberg has been criticized as a mannered, self‑indul­gent stylist with a trivial and peculiar vision of the world. But not even his detractors have denied the dramatic power of his plas­tic vision and the validity of his experimentation in the juxtapo­sition of shadow and light to express shifts of mood and inner action.

During his peak years (1927‑1935) he was recognized as one of the great masters of the American screen, an inspired artist and a superb technical craftsman.

In 1930, Von Sternberg went to Germany to direct Emil Jannings in UFA’s first talkie, The Blue Angel. Searching for an actress to exude the raw sexuality of the film’s seduc­tive vamp, Lola Lola, he discovered Marlene Dietrich on the Berlin stage. It was the beginning of a five‑year Pygmalion-­Galatea (some say Svengali‑Tilby) association during which Steinberg molded Marlene’s screen personality to conform to an image of his conception, thus transforming her from a plumpfrdulein into a glamorous and sensuous star. The Blue Angel, a classic of screen erotica, was a tremendous interna­tional success. Dietrich followed Sternberg to Hollywood, leav­ing behind her husband and child. The six Dietrich films Von Sternberg directed there-‑Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman‑-represent the greatest achievement of his career. They all reflect his unmistakable personal signature, his visual bravura and the ever-present veils, nets, fog, or smoke between subject and camera.

After his working relationship with Dietrich and Paramount ended, in 1935, his career began to decline. He directed two films for Columbia-‑an interesting version of Crime and Punishment and an adaptation of the operetta The King Steps Out. In 1937, Sternberg went into exile in England, where he began his most ambitious produc­tion, an adaptation of Robert Graves’s historical novel I Claudius, starring Charles Laughton. The pro­duction, supervised by Alexander Korda, was ill‑fated from the start. After several weeks of shooting, it was halted due to an injury suffered by its lead, Merle Oberon, in car accident. The production was never resumed and the film remained unfinished.  In the late 1960s, BBC‑TV in England produced a feature documentary about the I Claudius mystery, entitled ‘The Epic That Never Was.’ Shown in the US on Public TV, the feature contains excerpts from the unfinished film, which for some critics represent Sternberg’s greatest work.

Returning to the U.S. in 1938, Von Sternberg agreed to make two films for MGM. On the first, another director replaced him after few days of shooting, and the second was completed with mediocre results.

Von Sternberg retained his form with The Shanghai Gesture (1941) but his subsequent Hollywood films, made for Howard Hughes, were infrequent and routine.

The most important achievement in his later years was a film he made in 1953 in Japan. Ana‑Ta‑Han (The Saga of Anatahan) was a dramatic recreation of a true WWII incident of Japanese marines who contin­ued to maintain their positions on an island for seven years after the conclusion of combat because they refused to believe in Japan’s defeat.

In the 1950s, Stemberg went into semi-retirement in Los Angeles. He spent his last years traveling to international film festivals and lecturing in various univer­sities.

In 1965, he published his auto­biography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. He was considered to be an enigmatic director, a volatile man of mystery and contradiction, proud and arrogant, stubborn and secretive.

Von Sternberg died of heart ail­ment in 1969, at the age of 75.