109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

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George Kaplan
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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#101 Post by George Kaplan » Tue Jul 10, 2012 7:52 pm

In remembering Yamada Isuzu, I was again reminded how influenced by Sternberg Mizoguchi's films with her are. OSAKA ELEGY (1936) has a rather ridiculous "plot" too, particularly when you break it down as a sequence of incidents; though the tenor of the work, especially its irony, is quite different.

I know that Yamada will always be best remembered as Kurosawa'a Lady Macbeth, but for me, it is her work with Mizoguchi that is in that actress/director pantheon alongside Dietrich & Sternberg.

Here, at the end of OSAKA ELEGY, Yamada's character, Ayako, walks off, or rather in - she seems to force the film's end by walking right up to the camera (and seemingly into it? - through the screen?). I find it an especially powerful and poetic ending.

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I like to imagine Ayako very soberly saying to herself, much what Dietrich's Helen, drunkenly, but just as seriously pronounces...
"I'm going to get myself a better bed! Don't you think I can? Just watch!"

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#102 Post by david hare » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:09 am

That wonderful shot comes right after Ayako has strolled onto the bridge in near tragic despair only to be apparently heartened by an Eisensteinian parody of a prosperous businessman. The whole movie trips between peril and freedom, tragedy and high to low comedy.

I have often thought about running a triple bill of Blonde Venus, Osaka Elegy and Ophuls' sublime Sans Lendemain.

Sternberg's influence was so obviously profound in the 30s, and especially Blonde Venus. The Ophuls exports a similar (remarkably so considering the breadth of the weepie genres) narrative, with the focus on the way in which "Babs" (Edwige Feuillere) is defined in quintessentially Ophulsian characterization and presentation as a woman totally defined by the four men who "own" her - lover, her husband/pimp, the MC of Quatre Saisons where she performs semi-nude, and her son. Thus Ophuls stamps his own signature on a Sternbergian template. Mizo takes the narrative directly into proto feminism, and goes even further by blending Sternbergian mise en scene with Lubitschian plot turns (most notably the confrontation of the wife and Ayako at the puppet theatre performance.) Thus simultaneously evoking hommage to the two Pararmount directors and giving birth I think to his first masterpiece.
And Sternberg is stamped all over these two pictures like indelible ink.
Last edited by david hare on Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:23 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#103 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:23 am

It is be hard to imagine what Japanese cinema of the 30s would have been like had almost all of Japan's best directors not been Sternberg fans. ;~}

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#104 Post by david hare » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:24 am

And (for Mizo and Ozu at least) also Lubitsch fans!

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#105 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:26 am

david hare wrote:And (for Mizo and Ozu at least) also Lubitsch fans!
That too (and Murnau).

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#106 Post by knives » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:49 am

Borzage seemed to have touched at least Ozu too.

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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#107 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Jul 11, 2012 12:58 am

The best Japanese directors of the latter 20s and 30s were insatiable fans of Hollywood and European cinema. But Sternberg was probably the single biggest influence on the most people.

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George Kaplan
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Re: Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932)

#108 Post by George Kaplan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 12:57 am

david hare wrote:That wonderful shot comes right after Ayako has strolled onto the bridge in near tragic despair only to be apparently heartened by an Eisensteinian parody of a prosperous businessman. The whole movie trips between peril and freedom, tragedy and high to low comedy.

I have often thought about running a triple bill of Blonde Venus, Osaka Elegy and Ophuls' sublime Sans Lendemain.
I am thrilled to confess that I still have SANS LENDEMAIN to look forward to!

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The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#109 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:28 am

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#110 Post by liam fennell » Mon Feb 16, 2015 12:46 pm

Sometimes I drop acid and settle in to really take a very close look at the various Von Sternbergs. Usually with sound turned off while listening to other music. Last weekend I viewed Shanghai Gesture and Scarlet Empress in this state of mind. I'm no good at talking about themes and stuff, intellectual stuff, but I'll try to reflect on the things that interest me aesthetically. I think this will end up being more about Sternberg's oeuvre (they all blend into one mega-movie in my mind!) but I'll try to keep Scarlet Empress in mind.

Image

Right from the start this particular title from Shanghai Gesture drew a laugh and then I spent the rest of those couple hours looking at the extras rather than the actors which was a very illuminating experience! Highly recommended. The extras are the real stars of these movies! There isn't a single one in any frame of either movie that isn't meticulously posed, lit and framed. The extra actors are a bit more important in Shanghai Gesture but only, perhaps, because Jo doesn't have a Dietrich on hand.

I've come to the conclusion that Sternberg movies are essentially a series of masterful paintings that just happen to move and tell a story. The real drama is not actually in the story, but in the way that key light shines down and bounces off the different elements in the scene. The way there is always something happening in the foreground, the dead space between the camera and the actors. I notice more and more how Jo shoots out of the darkness so that the lights become even more dramatic and these foreground objects become more sharply defined and back lit.

Every frame of his films is carefully composed and then edited rhythmically into a whole that I almost always find overwhelming. And intoxicating. When he sets a scene he is not just focusing on the actors and their marks, he is dealing with every element with equal attention. Even the most insignificant shots are precisely framed with a careful balancing of light and shadow into a harmonious whole.

That Scarlet Empress is built around Marlene almost goes without saying. This is a movie created entirely for her and I often feel like she was created just for this movie! Her face is the greatest of all faces, so expressive and so perfectly formed. You can tilt her head a tiny bit and she looks like an entirely different person. She reminds me of the Mona Lisa. Every woman and no woman. The precision of her every movement, her total reliance on the director and his total confidence in her, combined with her endlessly suggestive face set her above almost all other actors for me. Even her blinking is controlled!

It seems Orson Welles detested Sternberg because he called Marlene a puppet in his autobiography. I feel like he misunderstood this statement. I think Sternberg meant it as the ultimate compliment (he also called her a magnificent bird of paradise or something similar!) In these movies by Von Sternberg all acting is expressed with gestures and looks -- NOT dialogue. The amount of detail in these gestures is quite staggering when you view the movies without sound. You can tell exactly what the characters are saying/thinking/feeling!!! In fact, he even had the Scarlet Empress script typed up without punctuation, I guess so people wouldn't focus so much on the dialogue when reading it.

Then Sternberg takes that a step further -- the costumes, sets and decor. An endless array of glittering, lustrous, and other thoroughly intoxicating surfaces. All of these things also tell the story more than any of the words do. It is really remarkable. He always tells the simplest possible story precisely so he can express it in its entirety with pure visual elements. We are in this castle you can't escape, full of shadows, horrific statuary and giant doors you can't even move by yourself! That tells you everything about her situation in pure visual terms, no?

The costumes and sets in Scarlet Empress are so overwhelmingly extravagant that the movie comes off almost as science fiction to me now!!! It certainly isn't rooted in reality! This is the craziest of all the Von Sternbergs, his most "relentless excursion into style", and stands above them all. It is not my favorite but it is the most impressive and mind-blowing. This was the first movie from the 1930s I'd ever seen about 6 years ago and I had the most intensely physical reaction to it. I was practically rolling around on the floor, hair standing on end, and goosebumps all over my body. It hit me like an atom bomb.

I'll never understand why Sternberg doesn't get much attention these days. We are all so lucky to have these movies. I guess, ultimately, they are a little too weird and confrontational? They seem more modern than anything modern to me.

Sternberg produced most of them himself, had almost complete autonomy, had the most perfect movie actress/subject that anyone ever had -- and he used all this power and money and influence to create art that exists on a extremely rarefied level. Sternberg created these things for all mankind, forever. Somehow! How?!! It is a kind of artworking and artifice that is so inimitable and successfully worked out over the course of the film-cycle it almost seems to exist in its own universe. He cares so much about the camera itself and he's pushing its expressive abilities as far as they can go -- and sparing no expense! For me, movies are really about what you are seeing and how it adds up and Von Sternberg stands above everyone else in this regard (Von Stroheim is right behind him, though!)

Can't think of much else to say, I feel like I'm saying a lot without really saying anything because the movie itself really says it all! Sorry if that is the case!

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#111 Post by domino harvey » Mon Feb 16, 2015 1:02 pm

liam fennell wrote:Sometimes I drop acid and settle in to really take a very close look at the various Von Sternbergs.
I believe we've stumbled upon a way to increase participation in Film Club. I'm thinking Laser Naruse next round

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#112 Post by Drucker » Mon Feb 16, 2015 1:09 pm

The Scarlet Empress may be my favorite Von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration. It is so incredibly rich and it stands out from many of their other films together in one essential way: the way Dietrich uses power to control her own destiny.

I have to take issue with a quote in the Robin Wood essay on the film in the Criterion booklet:
The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none are very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is A Woman. This resulted in the (today extraordinary) misreading of the films (starting from The Blue Angel as films about a woman who destroys men.
While the last line is indeed a reductive way of looking at the films, it's not entirely inaccurate. At one end of the spectrum, I think films like Blue Angel and Devil Is A Woman do an incredible job of showing how a woman can wield power over a man. On the other hand, Morocco and Blonde Venus show Dietrich dealing with a true unknown. Her heart is leading her in different ways at different times, and ultimately makes up her mind for her.

The Scarlet Empress stands out in large part because the film is from her perspective. If the other films can be read as a woman destroying a man, it's partly because we are introduced to the man first. We feel the Professor's pain in The Blue Angel. We feel Ned's pain in The Blonde Venus. Not here, however. She starts as a relative innocent. At the outset of their other films, Dietrich's demeanor seems to be set at the outset, and the film logically follows the protagonist's fate, which is outlined by Dietrich's character.

As she journeys to Russia, Dietrich's innocence is slowly taken from her, and in a way, she is made to be more "Russian." The film, sometimes hilariously, seems to take joy in an anti-Russian streak. I don't know how particularly historically accurate the film's accusations of slavery are, but the opening montage where she is described what Russia is like as a little girl is both magnificent and terrifying. On the other hand, her German father tries to instill morals and pride in her. He tells her to put others, like her husband, and her new country, first, rather than her own wants and needs. But these German morals are no match for the pressure being Russian applies to her.

First she is lied to about the man she will marry. As they cross the border, even the manner in which they travel must change. When finally the time comes for her to change her name, she is finally truly Russian, with all that it entails for the movie. The Count and the Russian royal family behave the opposite of the way her German father describes as proper. They put themselves, their own wants, and their own needs first. The selflessness with which she is raised, which prepares her for a life of service to others, is totally absent in Russia. The Count wants her body. Her husband just wants a placeholder. And her mother-in-law just wants her womb. All of the Russians are using her body in various ways.

Dietrich's range in this film is also powerful. Her weakness and confusion in the first half of the film is what sets her up for such a powerful second-half. She is constantly lost, confused, and overwhelmed. This feeling is brilliantly conveyed in Von Sternberg's oppressive dinner sequences, as well as her constanlty being surrounded by half a dozen people. We've seen how there is no other course of action for Dietrich to take in this film. She acts in the only way possible for her to survive.

As obviously in any film, Dietrich's de-flowering completes her transformation. After all the mistreatment she's had at the hands of the royal family, she's determined to use her sexuality as a weapon and to her advantage. If all anyone wants is her body, she's going to use it for the weapon it can be. And this is where the film stands out. Dietrich takes control of her body and sexuality and uses it for historic ends. In a way, it's similar to the other men she "brings down" in films. But the grand backdrop of saving a country gives the tone of the film a grandness which matches her deed. This isn't one strong woman and her effect on a weak man. This is a woman so strong she will lead her new country (just like father instructed) and save it from a reign of terror.

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#113 Post by serdar002 » Mon Feb 16, 2015 6:03 pm

David Hare & Herr Schreck audio commentary on Schreck's blog https://schreckbabble.wordpress.com/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
dropbox https://www.dropbox.com/s/xxf3isb9natwy ... s.mp3?dl=0" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#114 Post by Gregory » Mon Feb 16, 2015 6:11 pm

The "woman who destroys men" reading isn't just reductive but misleading, as it removes any male agency, thus making the men seem to be passive victims whose downfall was only because they had the misfortune to get mixed up with the wrong woman. And why would women want to destroy men (specific men or men as a uniform category)? Misandry? More general evil that (like the female sex itself) is unexplainable? A way of approaching the films that I believe fits better and says more about them to see them as being:
1. About what can happen when men place a woman on a pedestal but then cannot control them, or their own desire to do so. If fawning over a woman doesn't work, the man in these types of stories will frequently resort to bullying, and both can be seen as forms of an overall strategy of manipulation, which can turn against him.
2. About what can happen when women are placed into a disempowered position such that their sex appeal and power of attraction is their only means of exerting control and resisting containment and betrayal. Married to a husband who despises her and wouldn't hesitate to destroy her when it suits him, Catherine is in a position of male containment's sole means of building alliances seems to be having affairs. The same with female spies and criminals who, as objects of desire, have an advantage that none of their male counterparts possess.
3. Also related to control, about male anxieties of entrapment and failure to fulfill roles of power and achievement as well as of what could happen to them if they succumb to irrational feelings that place themselves in a position of extreme vulnerability.

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#115 Post by Drucker » Mon Feb 23, 2015 9:28 pm

You make an excellent point Gregory and I could certainly see all of the VS/Dietrich collaborations in one of your bullet points. I think what makes this film so fun and exciting is that it seems to be the furthest away from even the mis-reading of woman destroys man. Thinking about my viewing last week, I definitely find this to be the most over the top of their films together. The way Dietrich plays the role is sensational, and her twist in the film, as someone who takes advantage of their own power, is stunning.

Anybody else have anything to add? Where they rank this film in line with the other collaborations?

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#116 Post by Sloper » Fri Feb 27, 2015 5:50 pm

Drucker wrote:As she journeys to Russia, Dietrich's innocence is slowly taken from her, and in a way, she is made to be more "Russian." The film, sometimes hilariously, seems to take joy in an anti-Russian streak. I don't know how particularly historically accurate the film's accusations of slavery are, but the opening montage where she is described what Russia is like as a little girl is both magnificent and terrifying. On the other hand, her German father tries to instill morals and pride in her. He tells her to put others, like her husband, and her new country, first, rather than her own wants and needs. But these German morals are no match for the pressure being Russian applies to her. First she is lied to about the man she will marry. As they cross the border, even the manner in which they travel must change. When finally the time comes for her to change her name, she is finally truly Russian, with all that it entails for the movie. The Count and the Russian royal family behave the opposite of the way her German father describes as proper. They put themselves, their own wants, and their own needs first. The selflessness with which she is raised, which prepares her for a life of service to others, is totally absent in Russia. The Count wants her body. Her husband just wants a placeholder. And her mother-in-law just wants her womb. All of the Russians are using her body in various ways.
liam fennell wrote:We are in this castle you can't escape, full of shadows, horrific statuary and giant doors you can't even move by yourself! That tells you everything about her situation in pure visual terms, no?
I’m dead tired so this may or may not make any sense...

I was struck by the horrific statuary as well, and have been trying to figure out what its function is in the film. It seems to be part of what characterises the ‘Russianness’ of this setting as opposed to the more staid, sedate and repressive culture from which Sophia originally came.

There’s an incredible moment, early in the film, when she’s being told about the atrocities committed by past Russian emperors, and one of the horrors we see is a man strung up in a huge bell and swung from side to side in it like a clapper. Then there’s a cut to the grown-up Sophia swinging back and forth on her swing in the orchard. As well as the contrast between cruelty and innocence, there seems to be a link between the thrill of hearing about those Russian atrocities and the ostensibly innocent pleasure of the swing – as if something in Sophia’s spirit draws her to that Russian horror-show, specifically because of the horror. The segue is echoed at the end of the film when a swinging bell rings out Catherine’s triumph: there’s a dove fluttering in front of it now, perhaps suggesting that Catherine has purged Russia of its madness and sadism, and restored peace. But the intertitles have repeatedly gestured towards her ‘ill fame’, referring to her as ‘sinister’, hinting at some vague debauchery to come later in her reign (sex with a horse, I think?). These intertitles don’t seem to have much to do with the surface narrative of the film we’re watching, but they reinforce the sense that the more lurid material on display is key to the film’s appeal.

At its core, the film seems to be about that sense of being torn between horror and infatuation; I think this is true of the other Sternberg/Dietrich films I’ve seen, in which the man-eating woman is overtly and insistently celebrated for her sadistic behaviour, and in which the men she destroys are overtly and insistently mocked and undermined for their attempts to appropriate, control or otherwise abuse her. She destroys them; but they bring it on themselves, and anyway they love it.

So in one sense the innocent Sophia comes of age, takes responsibility and becomes Catherine the Great, saviour of Russia; in another sense, the latent transgressive tendencies in the repressed Sophia are catalysed and brought into the open when she is transferred to the Russian setting, until she becomes powerful enough to overcome, destroy and replace the previous empress and Peter – by the end, she is ‘better than’ either of them, but her new identity is also an amalgamation of the absolute power, sexual liberation and playful madness they taught her.

Most of the film plays out in the interiors of the imperial palace, and if any one feature defines this setting it is the ubiquitous statuary. I wish I could visit this set and see these things up close, because they really are astonishing. The double-headed eagle (?) craning its heads over the imperial throne; the huge mirror clutched in the hands of Satan; the tormented figures burying their faces in their hands behind the chairs in the council chamber; the little gargoyles holding up the bannister along the stairway; the skeleton holding onto the vat of soup at the banquet; and endless religious imagery, from an extraordinary Saint Sebastian (I think?) impaled with arrows, to the creepy holy family looming behind Catherine’s bed, to the crucified Christs... Even the more pious statues fetishise the contortions of the tortured human body.

And one of the primary effects of having so many statues everywhere is to make it genuinely hard, at times, to distinguish the real human beings from the statues. This echoes the Russian tortures at the start of the film, when we saw human bodies treated like bell-clappers, or more generally like inanimate objects whose lives and feelings are of no importance – except that their pain in being treated like this is figured as a source of pleasure. In one sense, the statues seem almost animate, threatening to spring to life and kill you: this is a paranoid world, where you’re supposed to feel watched and awed at all times. In another sense, they look like victims of some cruel supernatural punishment, dissidents who were petrified where they stood, and now remain as a warning to all the other subjects, who at times seem almost like statues in their terror of putting a foot wrong. But perhaps most importantly, the film is clearly in love with these statues – the camera can’t get enough of them. They’re a vivid embodiment of the lurid delight-in-horror, the uninhibited enjoyment of the grotesque, around which the film revolves.

Perhaps another transition Sophia goes through is the one that takes her from an objectified, de-humanised instrument – little more than an illuminated statue herself in the wedding sequence, peering nervously from beneath the suffocating gauze – to an all-powerful master of her surroundings, supported (literally, they carry her on their shoulders) by the army of toy soldiers she has conquered and can now play with to her heart’s content. For all that Sternberg may have controlled Dietrich’s every gesture, the end result is a remarkably spontaneous, un-actorly performance that seems to be bursting at the seams with a very ‘natural’ energy from the start, and this energy is gradually liberated from the forces that constrain it as the film goes on.

I’d also just like to say that I adore Sam Jaffe. There’s some truly wretched acting from some of the other supporting players (though weirdly even this seems essential to the effects Sternberg achieves), but Jaffe’s performance, like Dietrich’s, is perfectly in tune with the idiosyncratic tone of the film.

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#117 Post by AfterTheRain » Sun Mar 01, 2015 4:21 am

The Scarlet Empress is basically the last hurrah for both Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich before the Production Code went into strict enforcement, basically also making this the last hurrah for the Pre-Code era of filmmaking before ideas both verbal and visual would be kept at arm's length before the 50s and the 60 brought an end to the Code.

As Sloper mentioned in his post, the palace itself becomes a character through its use of the gargoyles and contorted images suggesting almost nightmarish pain emanating from both within and outside the imperial palace walls. A lot of credit has to go to Paramount's chief production designer Hans Dreier as well as cinematographer Bert Glennon for capturing the essence of terror through the expressionist lens; Dreier is no stranger to this distinctive style, having worked with von Sternberg on eight films prior to The Scarlet Empress and had used the visual skills from his time at UFA in Germany to give Paramount movies from Wings to A Place in the Sun their signature look - bold yet elegant and sophisticated. Without Dreier or Glennon, I don't know if the movie would be memorable visually as it is for Marlene and Josef taking history and turning it on its ear.

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#118 Post by Lowry_Sam » Sun Mar 01, 2015 3:53 pm

Just dropped off someone at the SF Airport & we accidentally came across an exhibit put on by SF MOMA. In the glass pillar display cases that grace the pathway to the security entrance for international departures for Josef of Hollywood Jewelry. It features very nice photos of screen actresses from the 30s - 60s on one side & the actual jewelry worn in the picture inside the display case. There's at least 30 displays (Liz Taylor/Cleopatra, Greta Garbo/Queen Christina & Grand Hote, Bette Davis/The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Virgin Queen & Jezebel, Joan Crawford/ Flamingo Road)...and Marlene Dietrich/Blonde Venus & The Scarlet Empress is one of the more impressive ones.

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Re: The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

#119 Post by Gregory » Tue Mar 03, 2015 2:09 pm

AfterTheRain wrote:As Sloper mentioned in his post, the palace itself becomes a character through its use of the gargoyles and contorted images suggesting almost nightmarish pain emanating from both within and outside the imperial palace walls. A lot of credit has to go to Paramount's chief production designer Hans Dreier as well as cinematographer Bert Glennon for capturing the essence of terror through the expressionist lens; Dreier is no stranger to this distinctive style, having worked with von Sternberg on eight films prior to The Scarlet Empress and had used the visual skills from his time at UFA in Germany to give Paramount movies from Wings to A Place in the Sun their signature look - bold yet elegant and sophisticated. Without Dreier or Glennon, I don't know if the movie would be memorable visually as it is for Marlene and Josef taking history and turning it on its ear.
Some of that credit has to be taken back from where, decades ago, it was mostly given to Sternberg, whose reputation has largely been one of a perfectionist auteur who controls every detail. It seems like the man himself encouraged that view of his process to a great extent, and critics and journalists latched onto it as a way of capturing his meticulous attention to all the details of mise-en-scène, which while true also lends itself to exaggeration. Having read a good amount of his writing, he seems to focus greatly on the process of directing actors, devoting comparatively little attention to collaboration with non-actors involved in the productions of his films. For example, I don't believe Dreier or Glennon are mentioned in Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and few critics give much credit to the creative roles of cinematographers and production designers on most of Sternberg's films. A couple of examples:
1. In a 1961 interview in Positif, Sternberg said, "I control the décor just as I control each element of the work I create." It's not that this is blatantly false, but I think this kind of statement greatly encouraged the reputation I'm describing.
2. In 1966 Michel Cournot wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur, "The Scarlet Empress... is, to its smallest detail, the work of one man. Sternberg wrote the story and dialogue, suggested the décor and the ikons, designed the statues—which are more numerous in the film than the actors—sketched the costumes, arranged the lights, composed some of the music and personally directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra which plays the score."
Thus it can reach extremes that are downright silly.

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Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#120 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Mar 03, 2015 2:32 pm

I'm amazed that our LiamSD above is viewing Scarlet Empress in purely visual terms, as there is a rich tapestry of wry humor, black comedy, intense sexual innuendo and overt social commentary running overtly loud and clear, inviting the viewer to peel back the layers. As opposed to some entirely quiet exercises in visual poetry where anything spoken on the audio plane is precisely What Is Said and nothing more, Empress is loaded with so many double-entendres, caustically funny moments, and rich wordplay that I can't possibly imagine someone missing out on it.

There are many films which look simply beautiful, highly labored sequences of light and shadow with little in the way of script, and this is certainly not one of them. The film is a total howler. As I've said so many times, JvS is the closest film has ever come to approximating the genius of Frank Zappa: a mind as insightful as it is brilliant, as witty as it is poetic, and multifaceted enough to keep all of these conceits in constant motion.

In the sound era, it just doesn't come any better.
Last edited by HerrSchreck on Tue Mar 03, 2015 2:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#121 Post by Gregory » Tue Mar 03, 2015 2:48 pm

Just came back to add that the Swiss sculptor Peter Balbusch deserves credit as well for creating the menacing statuary of Scarlet Empress, much as Otto Hunte did the memorable town clock figures in Blue Angel.

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HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#122 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Mar 03, 2015 2:56 pm

Yes David Hare gave massive credit to both Balbusch and Drier in our commentary. The dude is a walking compendium of Joe.

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liam fennell
Joined: Tue Jul 20, 2010 2:54 pm

Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#123 Post by liam fennell » Tue Mar 03, 2015 3:01 pm

Of course there is so much more to these things than the visuals! As noted, I've been looking at these things on a certain illicit substance and that is why I think so much about the visuals -- I actually had the sound turned off.

I didn't mean to downplay the sound, dialogue and the script, all of which I find equally wonderful and crucial to the whole. I'm just always staggered at how everything regarding the stories/themes is so completely played out visually on a number of levels. The imagery, and the way it reflects the other content like an infinitely regressing hall of mirrors, just overwhelms me in a way nothing else in cinema does. I agree the movies are almost impossibly funny and like Sloper says the often bad acting almost seems essential to Sternberg's aesthetic, incredibly enough. I was kind of joking when I said the extras were the stars -- though I do appreciate them more and more and more!

The lengths the man went to take credit for everything are indeed ridiculously over the top and ultimately do color the movies in a negative way. It is seriously unfair to the collaborators. People like Hans Dreier and (not in this movie, as far as I know) Jules Furthman deserve all the credit in the world for their work in these movies and Sternberg really does just dismiss them entirely in his book if he mentions them at all. Dude was maybe just a true weirdo eccentric artist of the highest caliber, for better or worse. I'm okay with that, in the final analysis, but I totally understand how it could rub a lot of people the wrong way.

I like the mostly-painted mirror room at the end of Shanghai Gesture! I forget off hand who did those paintings but that set is wonderful. I never even noticed it was a mirror room until my most recent viewing!

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barryconvex
billy..biff..scooter....tommy
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Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#124 Post by barryconvex » Thu Mar 05, 2015 12:42 am

...certain illicit substance...
you can still get LSD in this country? i thought it was totally extinct and the original formula lost forever...although i'm a robitussin DM man to the core i'm happy to know it's still alive and kicking.

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HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 109 The Scarlet Empress

#125 Post by HerrSchreck » Fri Mar 06, 2015 11:57 pm

Sure you're not thinking of quaaludes?

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