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Belligerent and evasive, Josef von Sternberg chose to ignore his illegitimate birth in Austria, deprived New York childhood, abusive father, and lack of education. The director who strutted onto the set in a turban, riding breeches, or a silk robe embraced his new persona as a world traveller, collected modern art, drove a Rolls Royce, and earned three times as much as the president. "Von Sternberg "traces the choices that carried the unique director from poverty in Vienna to power in Hollywood, including his eventual ostracism in Japan. Historian John Baxter reveals an artist few people knew: the aesthete who transformed Marlene Dietrich into an international star whose ambivalent sexuality and contradictory allure on-screen reflected an off-screen romance with the director.
In his classic films "The Blue Angel" (1930), "Morocco" (1930), and "Blonde Venus" (1932), von Sternberg showcased his trademark visual style and revolutionary representations of sexuality. Drawing on firsthand conversations with von Sternberg and his son, "Von Sternberg "breaks past the classic Hollywood caricature " "to demystify and humanize this legendary director.
adult insistence to follow the pattern infl icted on a child in its fi rst seven helpless years, from which a man could extricate himself were he to recognize that an irresponsible child was leading him into trouble.” He was born Jonas Sternberg on May 29, 1894, in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father, Moses Sternberg, came from a family of woodworkers but had been inducted into the Austrian army. His mother, Serafi n Singer, was the daughter of an instructor 5
Sternberg insisted on keeping all sets standing in case he needed to reshoot—a system he used again on I, Claudius, with just as much inconvenience to the studio. Dietrich claims in her memoirs that 114 Falling in Love Again four cameras ran simultaneously, but this can hardly be true. In Hollywood, directors of silent fi lms often shot with two cameras, side by side, to provide an identical negative for the fi lm’s European version. This was impractical on a sound fi lm. The camera was
entirely, heading for Buenos Aires. Cooper, who received top billing, initially regarded the fi lm as his own—an impression von Sternberg didn’t contradict. “As I was by then well-known to audiences from The Virginian,” Cooper said, “[it was thought] I would be the sort of partner who would make Marlene, as it were, popular by association. Von Sternberg told me that he had something in mind like the co-starring of Garbo with John Gilbert—the very American with the very European.”3 Once Cooper
Jamaica Bay, and fishermen’s shanties lined the shores of Manhattan. With the subway not yet completed, horse-drawn streetcars provided public transport, augmented by elevated railroads such as the one that ran down Sixth Avenue. Horses were so common that doomsayers foresaw their accumulated manure blocking entire streets. (Instead, it dried and blew about, spreading intestinal and respiratory diseases.) Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central had yet to be built. Once they were, pedestrians on
von Sternberg had become fi xated on a fi lm about Catherine the Great, with Dietrich as the notorious empress. “I have never started with so much material available,” he wrote, “and I have never started with such a wonderful character.”3 On May 9, 1933, he and Dietrich signed with Paramount for two more fi lms together. Shooting on the fi rst, entitled Catherine the Great, was set to begin in October. Dietrich’s salary rose to $4,500 a week— $125,000 a picture—making her one of Hollywood’s