The collaboration between filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich is one of the most enduring in all Hollywood cinema. Tasked by Paramount bosses to find ‘the next big thing’, director von Sternberg lighted upon German silent star Dietrich and brought her to Hollywood. Successfully transitioning from the silent to the sound era, together they crafted a series of remarkable features that expressed a previously hitherto unbridled ecstasy in the process of filmmaking itself. Marked by striking cinematography, beautiful design and elaborate camerawork these vibrantly sensuous films redefined cinema of the time, while Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous on-screen personas caused a sensation and turned her from actor to superstar and icon. Lavish, lascivious and wildly eccentric, the films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made for Paramount Pictures in the 1930s provide a unique testimony to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The six films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood are presented here in new restorations on Blu-ray for the very first time in the UK. Containing a wealth of new and archival extras – including new appreciations, interviews, audio commentaries, rare films, outtakes and deleted audio, documentaries… and more! This stunning box set is strictly limited to 6,000 units.
The second dual-layer disc in Indicator’s Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount box set presents the pair’s third film together, Dishonored, in the aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Indicator makes use of the same master that Criterion used for their own release, which comes from a new 4K restoration scanned from 35mm nitrate prints held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It has been encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition and is a region B disc. North American viewers will require a played that can play back region B content.
Similar to the Criterion set the picture quality in Indicator’s set improves with each title, and Dishonored provides a significant step-up over what Morocco presented. The source limits things still, but the image is quite a bit sharper, offering more detail, Dietrich’s outfits offering clearer, more distinct details. The print has a few marks remaining, along with some tram lines, but they’re quite infrequent. The digital presentation is solid, offering no digital artifacts or issues, rendering the film’s grain structure perfectly well. Like Criterion’s presentation the film is again quite clean and very filmic.
The audio for this title (again presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono) sounds a bit better than Morocco’s track, but age still limits it. Background noise is pretty heavy but outside of that there is no obvious damage like pops or cracks. Dialogue sounds fine and music comes off clean.
Criterion’s set had a number of features on Dietrich and von Sternberg and their collaborations, but the features dwindled as you went through the it. Indicator’s set packs in quite a bit of material (including commentaries) and spreads them out nicely. This title lacks a commentary track but does open with another introduction featuring Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the film director. Here he explains how Dishonored was his father’s anti-war film, which leads to him talking about his father’s experiences in World War I, as well as his uncle’s (who was unfortunately a causality). He also talks about what he knows about the relationship between Dietrich and von Sternberg and what it probably was before getting into the lighting in his father’s films, pointing out a couple of striking moments in Dishonored.
The big feature on here, though, is the 75-minute television program on the director, Josef von Sternberg: A Retrospective. It works as a standard biography of sorts, going over his early life and then looking at his work, but this program is elevated by interviews with the director that have been scattered about (where his love/hate relationship with filmmaking becomes fairly obvious) as well as the last 15-minutes. One of the better programs I had seen on von Sternberg was a BBC interview found on Criterion’s original DVD for The Scarlet Empress, which wasn’t carried over to the Blu-ray edition. In it von Sternberg demonstrated how he would light an actor and it was such a fascinating process to watch and losing it was incredibly unfortunate. Here we get something similar, having von Sternberg and Belgian director Harry Kümel both film actor Dorothée Blanck. This includes costume, make-up, lighting, and the whole shebang. Von Sternberg pays an incredible amount of detail to every facet of his shot, right from make-up all the way to final lighting, and you can see Blanck finding it a bit much (at a point she starts crying, I assume out of frustration, though she could have been just giving a performance for von Sternberg, which appears to be what he’s thinking), but the finished material is far more striking than Kümel’s. Great addition if just for that last part.
Tag Gallagher next provides one of his excellent visual essays, this one entitled ”I Did What He Told Me to Do.” The 17-minute feature looks at von Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s work together, the persona that was created (the essay’s title taken from Dietrich explaining that she put nothing of herself in the roles, she just did what she was told), Dietrich’s many faces, and how her characters would put on many faces themselves. The essay also looks at how emotions and thoughts were conveyed through the set up of a scene and the movements of the actors. Like all of his essays (that I’ve come across at least) it’s wonderfully edited together and clear in its delivery.
The disc then closes with a rather small image gallery, containing only a handful of photos, most of which are posters.
Not as satisfying as the supplements found on Morocco (it’s missing something like the commentary on that disc) but there isn’t a dud on here, all of the material excellent and satidfying.
Indicator’s set so far matches the Criterion one in regards to picture and sound, but is already packing on a number of great supplements, with Dishonored offering a wonderful batch that ends up showcasing the director’s style and process.