Crime and Punishment (1935): Von Sternberg’s Version of Dostoevsky

Sternberg at Columbia Pictures, 1935-1936

The shakeup that followed bankruptcy at Paramount in 1934 led to exodus of talent. Producer Schulberg and screenwriter Furthman were hired by the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn.  As loyal former colleagues, they sponsored Sternberg’s work at the low-budget studio for two-picture contract.

Crime and Punishment (1935)

An adaption of the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was Sternberg’s first project at Columbia.

Making literary masterpieces for the mass public was prevalent in the 1930s, and as copyrights on these works were expired, the studio paid no fees.

Sternberg invested Dostoevsky’s work with style, but any attempt to convey the complexity of the author’s character analysis was suspended in favor of  straightforward detective story. However, Sternberg proved an able craftsman, dispelling the myths regarding his eccentricities and the film proved satisfactory to Columbia.

The King Steps Out (1936)

Sternberg’s next feature, The King Steps Out, starring soprano Grace Moore, was based on Fritz Kreisler’s operetta Cissy. A comedy of errors about Austrian royalty set in Vienna, the production was undermined by personal and professional discord between opera diva and director.

Sternberg was unable to adapt his style to the demands of operetta.  Sternberg quickly departed Columbia Pictures after the film’s completion. The King Steps Out was the only movie he insisted to be expunged from retrospectives of his work.

From 1935 to 1936, Sternberg travelled in the Far East for future artistic endeavors. During these excursions he made the acquaintance of Japanese film distributor Nagamasa Kawakita – they would collaborate on Sternberg’s final movie in 1953.  In Java Sternberg contracted abdominal infection, requiring his immediate return to Europe for surgery.

I, Claudius (1937)

The Epic That Never Was, a 1966 BBC documentary by London Films, directed by Bill Duncalf, addresses the making of the unfinished I, Claudius and the reasons for its failure.

The docu includes interviews with surviving members from the cast and crew, as well as director Josef von Sternberg. Contrary to the revised version of the docu, the Sternberg-Laughton quarrels were not central factor in the film’s undoing. Despite objections from Merle Oberon, the film was not so far advanced in production that she could not be replaced; a substitute actress was a feasible option.

Moreover, Sternberg “cut in the camera”, i.e. he did not experiment on the set with multiple camera configurations that would provide raw material for the cutting room. On the contrary, he filmed each frame as he wished it to appear on the screen.

Film historian Andrew Sarris offers this assessment: “Sternberg emerges from the documentary as an undeniable force in the process of creation, and even his enemies confirm his artistic presence in every foot of the film he shot.”

While convalescing in London, the dir

ector, his creative powers still intact, was approached by London Films’ Alexander Korda. The British impresario asked Sternberg to film novelist and poet Robert Graves’s biographical account of Roman Emperor Claudius. Already in pre-production, Marlene Dietrich had intervened on Sternberg’s behalf rather than British director William Cameron Menzies.

Played by Charles Laughton, Claudius is an aging, erudite and unwitting successor to the Emperor Caligula. When thrust into power, he initially governs upon the precepts of his heretofore virtuous life. As emperor, he warms to his tasks as a social reformer and military commander. When his young wife, Messalina (Merle Oberon) proves unfaithful while Claudius is away campaigning, he launches his armies against Rome and signs her death warrant. Proclaimed a living god, the now dehumanized and megalomaniacal Claudius meets his tragic fate: to rule his empire utterly alone. The dual themes of virtue corrupted by power, and the cruel paradox that degradation must precede self-empowerment were immensely appealing to Sternberg both personally and artistically. Korda was eager to get the production underway, as Laughton’s contract would likely expire during shooting.

Korda had already assembled a talented cast and crew when Sternberg assumed directorial duties in January 1937.  When shooting commenced in mid-February Sternberg, a martinet who was prone to reducing his performers “to mere details of décor,” soon clashed with Laughton, the Oscar-winner actor.

Laughton required the intervention of the director to consummate a role–“a midwife” according to Korda. Sternberg, who had clear insight cinematically and emotionally as to the Claudius he wished to create, struggled with Laughton in frequent artistic arguments. The actor announced five weeks into the filming that he would be departing London Film when his contract expired in April 1937. Korda, now under pressure to expedite the production, discreetly sounded Sternberg. With only half the picture done, Sternberg exploded, declaring he was engaged in artistic endeavor, not race to a deadline.

In March, with growing personnel animosities and cost overruns, Merle Oberon was seriously injured in automobile accident. Though expected to recover, Korda seized upon Oberon’s mishap as pretext to terminate the ill-fated venture.