Blu-Ray Review – Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount, 1930-1935

Indicator has compiled a massive boxset of the Hollywood collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and the actress/singer Marlene Dietrich. These films were made after von Sternberg discovered Dietrich and made her a international star with their first collaboration, The Blue Angel.  Sternberg then returned to the States, bringing Dietrich with him and quickly embarking on six features over the next five years.

The films included in the set are the following: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935). Of these, Morocco is probably the most famous film in the set, mainly due to an extraordinary entrance where Marlene Dietrich performs in a tuxedo and then very casually kisses a woman on the lips: it’s a pre-code film, so morals were a lot looser than they would be only a few years later when the Hays Code came in. It also made Dietrich one of the earliest gay film icons. Dietrich’s sexuality was incredibly fluid, she had numerous affairs with many of the world’s most famous men and women, although she was also married to her husband Rudolf Sieber for over 50 years, until his death. The making of Morocco was no exception: she had a fling with her co-star Gary Cooper, who she nevertheless has no chemistry with in the film. She seems far more enamoured with that woman whose lips she plants a kiss on.

Dishonored is one of the lesser-known films in the set, but probably my favourite. It’s an anti-war spy thriller about a prostitute who is hired to be a secret agent for Austria during war-torn 1915. It’s loosely based on the life of the real-life Mata Hari, who was executed for being a spy. MGM, which had Greta Garbo on contract, would make a one-off rip-off entitled Mata Hari to cash in on the threat they feared Dietrich was to their prime star. It’s long-rumoured they also had an affair in those roaring ‘20s, when Garbo was over shooting Joyless Street in Germany for G.W. Pabst. It allegedly ended very badly, and Dietrich would call her “the Scandinavian child.” They only met once more, when Orson Welles thought he was the introducing these two screen starlets for the first time—little did he know!

Once you’ve watched a couple of the films, you get into a rhythm. They are all beautifully photographed class acts from early Hollywood filmmaking. The films range from period drama Shanghai Express to even proto-noirs, like Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman. It’s known that Sternberg and Dietrich had a complicated relationship. They did have a fling, and he is clearly enamoured with her, but he quickly figured out it wouldn’t last. All the male protagonists are obviously avatars of Sternberg, often with a physical resemblance to the director. He lights her in a way that shows her as being as exotic as the locations where the films are often set. Louise Brooks, one the most iconic actresses of the ’20s, said “Sternberg, with his detachment, could look at a woman and say ‘this is beautiful about her and I’ll leave it … and this is ugly about her and I’ll eliminate it’.’ Take away the bad and leave what is beautiful so she’s complete … He was the greatest director of women that ever, ever was.”

Post-Dietrich, Sternberg struggled in Hollywood for the rest of his career, with the Robert Mitchum noir vehicle Macao probably being the most widely-known film from his later work, although Nicolas Ray came in to finish the film after he was fired. He would find some success post his film noir period as a teacher at UCLA, where he taught Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek (who would describe him as “perhaps the greatest single influence on The Doors.”) Dietrich had a long and varied career on-screen working with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, to name just a few of her directors, till her death in 1992 but her collaborations with Sternberg would always remain her most iconic, and many of the songs she sings in the films would later be signature tunes in her stage shows.

The box set from Indicator features various commentaries from critics and historians. All the films include an introduction from Nicholas von Sternberg (Josef’s son), Morocco includes a radio adaptation, and the rest include additional documentaries and much more.

Ian Schultz

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