3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Vienna-born, New York–raised Josef von Sternberg directed some of the most influential and stylish dramas ever to come out of Hollywood. Though best known for his later star-making collaborations with actor Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg began his career during the final years of the silent era, dazzling audiences and critics with his films’ dark visions and innovative cinematography. The titles in this collection, made on the cusp of the sound age, are three of von Sternberg’s greatest works, gritty evocations of gangster life (Underworld), the Russian Revolution (The Last Command), and working-class desperation (The Docks of New York) rendered as shadowy movie spectacle.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their 3-disc box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg to Blu-ray, presenting the films Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York over three dual-layer discs, each in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. All three films come from older high-definition restorations and have been encoded at 1080p/24hz here. The Last Command was scanned from a 35mm duplicate negative while the other two films came from 35mm fine-grain positives.
The most disappointing aspect about these presentations is the fact that they didn’t get new scans. This isn’t overly problematic, and in the end all three films still look very good (limited more by source materials in most cases) but there is still a bit of a home-video look to them. Grain was present on the old DVDs as it is here across all of the films, but it’s not as cleanly defined as I would admittedly like, and there are times it can look noisy, while having a clunky look overall. At the very least, though, there are no other egregious issues: I didn’t detect macroblocking, edge-enhancement, nor banding of any kind, but the image can still have a somewhat dated appearance.
Having said that, I still found there to be a noticeable upgrade with the high-def format, and all three films come off looking better in the end. The Docks of New York easily offers the biggest upgrade, though that could simply come down to the materials being in better shape. I found the detail in the film to be extraordinary, this easily being the sharpest looking film in the set. Fine details in outfits and even stray strands of hair are incredibly clear here, and even shots in the shadows and the fog still knock it out of the park in this regard. The DVD looked great but it’s quite a bit better here, and it’s a shame that a new scan wasn’t done because I can only imagine how incredible it would have been.
The other two films can be a bit fuzzier but that comes down to the materials. The Last Command has several softer looking shots but overall, it’s far sharper than I recall from the old DVD. Underworld is pretty soft throughout. But in both cases the digital presentations are solid for what they are, and help the films look as good as they can.
I don’t think further restoration has been done, though it’s admittedly hard to tell since damage was so heavy to begin with on the DVDs, and it appears it’s all still here. There are long stretches across all three films where nothing stands out or, at worst, there are a few blemishes, scratches, or thing tram lines. But there are many instances where damage gets incredibly heavy, with scratches raining through, strongly impacting the picture. Considering the age of the films this isn’t really a surprise and I admit when I had popped in the original DVDs back in 2010 I was expecting far worse. Despite this I was, and still am, impressed with the work that went into these. They again would all benefit from new scans but as it is I still think they look impressive on the format.
All three films come with optional scores. Robert Israel wrote new scores for Criterion’s original DVD set back in 2010, which have been included here again, along with optional scores conducted for past screenings: The Docks of New York comes with a score written by Donald Sosin for a 2008 screening of the film in Bologna, Italy. The other two also come with scores conducted by the Alloy Orchestra for 2007 screenings at the New York Film Festival. All of the tracks are presented in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo.
The default tracks in all cases are the Israel tracks, which are fine and probably more what you would expect from a silent film score, but I did find the alternate ones interesting, with the Alloy Orchestra score offering some interesting interpretations for a handful of scenes. All of the tracks sound excellent in regards to overall quality, though, so it will ultimately come down to personal preference. The tracks are new so they offer fantastic fidelity and decent depth, filling out the sound field fine enough. None of the tracks really show off and are all low key, but they’re sharp and crystal clear here. I can’t fault any of them technically.
Criterion only includes a handful of features for this box set, and that makes the supplements look sparse, but I was pretty impressed with the overall quality. They have also ported everything over.
Disc 1, which presents Underworld includes the feature Underworld: How it Came to Be, an excellent 36-minute video essay hosted by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom that manages to cover the lack of much else on the disc. While speaking over scenes from films, photographs, documents, letters, notes, and sketches, Bergstrom first covers von Sternberg’s early life and how he managed to get into film. She covers his first film, The Salvation Hunters and how it was seen and praised by Charlie Chaplin who picked it up to distribute through United Artists. From there von Sternberg moved on to other projects, though nothing really took off, Chaplin even seeming to want to bury one of his films, A Woman of the Sea. She then gets into his move to Paramount, and how he came to become the director of Underworld. From this point Bergstrom concentrates on the film, giving a very detailed history of its productions, and problems the film’s writer, Ben Hecht, had with the finished product (finding it a little sentimental). She analyzes some of the differences between the finished film and the final script, and how von Sternberg made these script changes to make the film more visual, Bergstrom even breaking down some scenes. She has plenty of drawings and notes present, and even quotes from those that knew or worked with the director, including Evelyn Brent (“Feathers” in the film), who goes into great detail about working with “Joe” and her admiration of him. She then covers the advertising, it’s release (the film becoming a surprise hit for Paramount) and then immediate jobs von Sternberg got after that (including having to re-edit von Stroheim’s The Wedding March). In it’s 36-minute runtime it does an outstanding job covering the film’s making and von Sternberg’s early career.
The Last Command is found on disc 2, and it too only has one feature: a visual essay by Tag Gallagher called Von Sternberg Till ‘29. Like the visual essay by Janet Bergstrom on the previous disc, Gallagher covers the director’s early life and then quickly moves to his first feature film, The Salvation Hunters, and his brief working relationship with Charlie Chaplin. From there Gallagher focuses on the films in this set, offering an analysis and breakdown of many sequences from the three films along with The Salvation Hunters—with clips from all—showing how von Sternberg had an early grasp on film language. He talks about how the director conveys emotions visually, talks about his framing, use of sets (including how the placement of items in the foreground affect the feel of a scene), light and shadow, and even gets into detail how cigarettes come into play in each of the films. Mixed in are plenty of photos and archival film footage, and Gallgher provides plenty of quotes from von Sternberg. As with all of Gallagher’s visual essays it’s an exceptional and intriguing one. The lack of much else may seem disappointing but this 35-minute piece does a solid job making up for the absence of other features on the disc.
Disc 3 presents The Docks of New York and with it one will find a rather wonderful interview with Josef von Sternberg, recorded in Sweden in 1969. Running 40-minutes, and presented in a mix of Swedish and English (with optional English subtitles for the Swedish spoken,) it’s a fairly candid interview as the director talks about his early silent work and his later work with Marlene Dietrich, though the latter to a small degree. It focuses on a few of his films, primarily The Salvation Hunters, Underworld, the unfinished I, Claudius, and even Anatahan (it even has clips from all of the films, including a finished sequence from I, Claudius). But the interview gets especially good when they start looking at the Swedish posters for his early films with the director recalling the films and the actors he worked with. And similar to a feature found on Criterion’s original DVD edition of The Scarlet Empress (and a feature in Indicator’s von Sternberg/Dietrich set), von Sternberg then gives a demonstration of his lighting technique.
Criterion also carries over, much to my surprise, the 95-page booklet, and it looks like they have carried it over in its entirety. First are essays for each of the films, including one for Underworld by Geoffrey O’Brien, another for The Last Command by Anton Keas, and then finally one for The Docks of New York by Luc Sante. Notes on the scores by the composers follow this, written by Robert Israel, Ken Winokur (for the Alloy Orchestra), and the Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (the latter providing vocals). In the best inclusion, we also get Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld, which is quite a bit different, most specifically the ending. But the best piece would have to be the excerpt from von Sternberg’s memoirs “Fun in a Chinese Laundry” where he recalls working with actor Emil Jannings, which was apparently a frustrating experience, leading the director to state that even if Jannings was the last actor on earth, he would never work with him again. After all these years it’s still an excellent booklet, probably one of their best, and I’m so happy it has been carried over entirely. No updates look to have been made.
And that’s it. It admittedly doesn’t look like a lot, especially for a 3-disc box set running shy of $100, but the material is well done and engaging and manages to cover the films from a few angles..
All three films could have benefitted from new scans and restorations as the masters used do look a bit dated, but there is a noticeable bump in picture quality thanks to the fact we’re not getting the full high-def presentations. Criterion also ports all of the wonderful supplementary material over from the DVD edition, including the 95-page booklet.