The Devil Is in the Details

The Devil Is in the Details

Toward the end of his life, Josef von Sternberg choreographed a victory lap. He had not made a film in more than a decade—that was the remarkable 1953 The Saga of Anatahan, which hardly anyone had seen—and the reputations of his legendary films with Marlene Dietrich were either riven by controversy (Susan Sontag reduced them to a species of camp) or hoist on the petard of sentimentality, thanks to a long siege of Dietrich concerts that made audiences tear up to “Falling in Love Again,” in tribute to the valiant German beauty who had allied with the Allies and helped to shore up the home front. So he reasserted himself in a 1965 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, named for an 1896 Edison film he found amusing, though he might just as well have called it Bull in a China Shop, to underscore the disdainful rage he had nurtured over the years (no slight was too slight to repeat and reprove), swaddled in a world-weary grandiloquence, alternating fierce intelligence with cavalier baloney. He launched his own postpublication tour, vainly trying to appear modest in the face of wintry adoration, even demonstrating his unique way of lighting a camera shot on a couple of television shows. On Swedish TV, the host reminded him that the Swedish actor Warner Oland had worked for him. Von Sternberg’s instant response was to recall that it took Oland two dozen takes to correctly deliver the line “Good morning,” then reconsidered and added that he was a nice man who did everything he was told to do. He placed a high value on obedience.  

Perhaps the dreariest thing you can do as prelude to viewing and reviewing the six masterworks collected in this set, each restored to a gleam redolent of that with which it premiered almost nine decades ago, is to spend too much time in the constricted ambit of their maker’s narcissism. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that the overarching theme of Fun in a Chinese Laundry is his inflexible insistence that a film is the work of one solitary artist, Herr Director, and that those who labor on his behalf are technicians or empty vessels, recruited to realize his vision. 

Von Sternberg (the von originated as promotional affectation) doesn’t argue for mere auteurism, a term he would surely find useless in a world in which nearly every director with a style or a theme or even a body of work is presumed to be the author of his or her films and every film is automatically credited to its director. His preferred filmmaking metaphor was not captain and crew but puppeteer and puppets, or sculptor and clay, or painter and paint. He wore jodhpurs and carried a cane and dictated the shots (he ultimately joined the American Society of Cinematographers and removed the middleman), cutting (his films often lack credits for editing), art direction, costumes, and performances. He demanded compliant actors, men and women who posed just so and recited just so. When he writes, “This is not meant to be a denunciation of an actor,” prepare rather for an evisceration: “One who passes himself off as the most eloquent of men cannot grapple with a single sentence unless he reads it as if each sound were meant to be rolled around the gums like caviar.” As to writers, he resorts to misdirection or neglect: Jules Furthman wrote or cowrote at least nine of his films yet doesn’t rate a wave of the hand in Fun in a Chinese Laundry. 

“One of von Sternberg’s favorite verbs in explaining his method was emotionalize.

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