If the seven films representing the peerless working collaboration of director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich at Paramount between 1930 and 1935 were to vanish forever, they might still be remembered just for their titles alone. The Blue Angel, Dishonored, Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Devil is a Woman, The Scarlet Empress. Each rolls off the tongue with so much elegance, shrouded in an air of irresistible mystique and glamour. These titles are exotic, sexy, hovering in the domain of a religious experience. They have, then, all the qualities of the films themselves, losing even a single one of which, I should now clarify, would be like the tragedy of waking up and forgetting the most wonderful dream you just had. That’s because these films themselves are dreams, leading us, one long cross-dissolve after another, into a foggy world of long lost loves and fantastic adventure.
Sternberg was one of Hollywood’s best practitioners of atmosphere working at a time when shadows and fog could no longer carry a picture on their own. The spectacular set pieces of the DeMilles and Griffiths of the silent era were being replaced by the spectacle of what exists inside characters living in a world much more like the one you just left upon entering the cinema. In other words, sound brought us James Cagney and left behind Douglas Fairbanks. At the dawn of the sound era, Sternberg, however, had an altogether different kind of transformation. He turned away from the grimy urban locales of his silent films like Docks of New York and Underworld to offer a setting that was decidedly not prohibition-era Chicago or dinner at the Ritz, as foreign as those places now seem to us. Instead he takes us to his impression, really perhaps something closer to anyone’s impression circa 1930, of the edge of the Earth. The crowded bazaars of Morocco, an action-packed train station in Peking, a destitute quarter of New Orleans. Sternberg’s portrayal of these places raises such storybook ideals to the level of pseudo-documentary. How did Hollywood ever get such good extras in the 1930s? Whoever perfected the art of making a stage flat look like a stucco wall perfectly peeling away its crumbling finish as if it had existed as long as the Bible? How did they get all that dirt on that soundstage, and on those people? The films are so hyper-realistic in their integration of ambient detail that they produce an effect more dream-like even than the Cloud Nine universe of Sternberg’s contemporary Ernst Lubitsch. It’s this devotion to the minutiae of atmosphere itself that interrupts our ever becoming fully absorbed in the places Sternberg takes us, as densely populated as a Balzac novel and certainly as melodramatic.
But wading with him—or rather, one gets the sense, far ahead of him—through the sheer density of all this stuff, is Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich takes Sternberg’s pseudo-realistic globetrotting dream world as her stage and brings life to it, if only through the utter negation of any kind of attempt to be at all lifelike. She acts as if the whole thing were a backdrop in a theater, sauntering about as comfortably as if the place were her own dressing room. Whereas Sternberg’s need to make his settings emphatically real on the surface level obstructs a genuine feeling of reality, Dietrich’s characters are so fictitiously composed that even the slightest breach of this surface-level coolness feels like penetrating into the core of human emotion. Many of Sternberg’s most emblematic scenes are centered on trying to scratch past the surface and into Dietrich’s humanity. Usually the person doing the scratching is an unbearably stiff past lover. Dietrich smokes a cigarette and looks in the opposite direction as the man played by either Clive Brook or, far more compellingly, Herbert Marshall, asks her how long it’s been since she left him. “Five years and four weeks,” Dietrich says coolly. Well it was nice to see you again. “Oh I don’t know.” She puts on a record and takes off her gloves, peeling away a small part of her façade.
Moments like these are about all I can remember as far the plots of Sternberg and Dietrich’s films go. They’re so filled with the familiar plot turns of returning lovers, new affairs, old affairs, and competing suitors that connecting the narrative dots feels besides the point. Like dreams, the threads have raveled and I’m left with a collection of images, sounds, music cues, lines, faces, glances. Marlene Dietrich dressed in a black tuxedo, white tie, and top hat, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth, singing at a night club in Morocco. I can’t remember the song, only the moans and lulls of her voice as she glides over notes, looking down at Gary Cooper as if he were powder on the end of her nose. Dietrich’s entrance in Shanghai Express, amongst the backdrop of a hectic Peking train station, a sweeping black concoction of feathers and veils clinging to her as she vamps across the platform, her eyes as steady as rocks breaking the current. On the run in Blonde Venus, forced into hiding in the slums of New Orleans, her silk robes tattered as she bathes her child, her brilliantly blonde hair perfectly ruffled. Always we ask the question, what is this character doing there? Hardly ever is it explained, and that is the source of the mystique which these films carry. Whether working in a cabaret or as a princess or Russian spy, the roles Dietrich plays are themselves characters putting on a show. We watch, we dream, as she is bathed from above in heavenly light from the rafters of a Hollywood soundstage.
Three of Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations, The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus, and Shanghai Express, screen as part of Film Forum’s series “IT GIRLS, Flappers, Jazz Babies & Vamps,” Friday, March 11-Thursday, March 24.