1894: A Masochistic Movie Genius Who Would Crawl Before Dietrich Is Born

Josef von Sternberg, doyen of silent movies, rose to greatness in talkies – in his creation of Marlene Dietrich, and his suffering at her hands.

Josef von Sternberg
Wikimedia Commons

May 29, 1894, is the birthdate of Josef von Sternberg, the Vienna-born filmmaker who succeeded in putting a distinctive stamp on movies in an era before the studio system controlled every aspect of film production.

The decade during which he turned out his greatest work – 1925-1935 – was the period of the transition from silent movies to talkies. Von Sternberg made the switch successfully, although ironically, he himself  cared only about the visual image on the screen: Von Sternberg once said that the significance of a screenplay to a film was “none.” Still, his best-known movies -- those he made with Marlene Dietrich -- were talkies all of them.

Love and money, men and women

Jonas Sternberg was the son of Moses Sternberg and the former Serafin Singer. Moses was a former career soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army who spent the early years of his son’s life moving back and forth – sometimes dragging the family with him – from Austria to the United States, as he sought to make a living in civilian life.

When Jonas was 14, the family settled in New York for good.

Despite his years growing up in Austria, Sternberg forgot nearly all his German by adulthood, though that didn’t stop him from returning to Berlin to make movies in the 1920s. He also cultivated a persona for himself as a German aristocrat, adding the particle "von" to his name in 1925, an idea he cribbed from Erich von Stroheim, another Jewish boy from Vienna who started life as plain "Stroheim."

Marlene Dietrich in a 1929 photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, werting white button shirt , blackk suit with large white boutonniere, top hat, one hand in a jacket pocket, one held up.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Sternberg left Jamaica High School, in Queens, after a single year and soon landed a job cleaning and repairing movie prints. When the lab he worked for was bought by World Film Co., a production and distribution company, he began his move up the cinematic ladder, soon working as an editor.

At World Film, Sternberg worked as an apprentice with several French directors before one of them, Emile Chautard, made him assistant director of his 1919 movie "The Mystery of the Yellow Room." Sternberg’s first feature as director was "The Salvation Hunters" (1925), a silent and allegorical work about love and money, and men and women, that despite its tiny budget, earned him the attention of some of the industry's big players.

Falling for the temptress

During the late 1920s, Sternberg made four silent films for Paramount that established his reputation – "The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York," and the gangster flicks "Underworld" (written by Ben Hecht) and "Thunderbolt."

The Docks of New York Josef von Sternberg, 1928 YouTube

Fortunes have always shifted quickly in Hollywood. When things began slowing down there for von Sternberg, he went to Germany to make "The Blue Angel" for UFA, in both English- and German-language versions.

It was Dietrich’s first film. In her portrayal of Lola Lola, who tempts the distinguished Prof. Rath (Emil Jannings) to his moral downfall, she immediately established herself as an unfeeling seductress, apparently a role she played in real life as well, in particular with Josef von Sternberg.

Although von Sternberg the director had a reputation for being austere and dictatorial on set (“the only way to succeed,” he once said, “is to make people hate you”), in his personal life, he was a masochist who was hopelessly in thrall to Dietrich. More than one film historian has observed that in nearly all of his films von Sternberg drew on his own personal life in his depiction of male protagonists who suffer regular humiliation at the hands of women. 

He and Dietrich made six other films together, including “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Blonde Venus” (1932), and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), but after that, von Sternberg had trouble finding work in Hollywood, especially after he had a falling-out with Ernst Lubitsch, then the director of production at Paramount. His movies were overly abstract and too visually driven to draw the kind of audiences the studios sought.

The last film Von Sternberg made, the 1953 “Ana-ta-han” (though “Jet Pilot” was released after it, in 1957), was an independent picture he made in Japan, writing, narrating, and directing it himself. It concerns 12 Japanese sailors stranded on an island for seven years following World War II, and was a critical and financial failure.

Von Sternberg died on December 22, 1969, at age 75.

Marlene Dietrich "Naughty Lola, 1930 (The Blue Angel) YouTube