Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969)

Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg was an Austrian film director raised in New York, who created some of the sharpest and most stylish movies ever made in Hollywood. He first made his reputation in the final years of silent movies, then successfully made the transition to sound and directed the young Marlene Dietrich in 'The Blue Angel' in 1930, followed by six other movies with her. He twice received Academy Award nominations for Best Director, for 'Morocco' in 1930 and 'Shanghai Express' in 1932.

Not long ago he would have been included in any serious list of the greatest of Hollywood directors. In recent years, however, his ornate and bright cinematographic style has fallen out of favor. More is the pity, because von Sternberg was a true original, a visual stylist without peer, and one of cinema's great obsessives.

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He was born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna, Austria on May 29th, 1894. (He added the aristocratic sounding "von" when he began his directing career.) He was the eldest of five children of a poor Jewish family. His father, an ex-soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, emigrated to America when Jonas was two, and Jonas and the rest of the family joined him five years later. After returning to Austria for four years, the family then went back to New York for good.

His father managed to find a job as a lace worker but the family remained poor and Jonas had to leave Jamaica High School to get work to contribute to the family income. When he was 17 he changed his name to Josef and found work first in a Manhattan lace and ribbon store, then a job cleaning and repairing sprocket holes in movie prints. It was a humble start to a distinguished movie career.

He continued working for film companies, in both America and Europe, from 1911 to 1924. He worked in every department, learning his trade and gradually being given more and more responsibility. During the First World War he was employed by the US Army Signal Corps. making training films and by 1919 he had become Assistant Director for the World Film Corporation on 'The Mystery of the Yellow Room', continuing in this position in several succeeding movies such as 'The Highest Bidder' in 1921 and 'Vanity Fair' in 1923.

Sternberg spent some time in England during the early 1920's, working with the Alliance Film Company at Twickenham. It was during this stay that he was advised to add "von" to his last name to enhance his authority and prestige. He did so and from 1924 onwards was known as Josef von Sternberg.

Hollywood Director 1925

Sternberg had long had ambitions of directing a film of his own and he was able to obtain finance for a low budget production from his colleague, British actor George K. Arthur, who loaned him $4,800 towards the financing of his first independent venture, 'The Salvation Hunters' in 1925. The movie was a critical success, although it was booed and hissed at its premiere, and was lauded by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Sternberg's directorial career was launched.

He became involved with Chaplin and Mary Pickford and United Artists, and he wrote and directed for Chaplin 'The Sea Gull' in 1926 (also known as 'A Woman of the Sea'). The movie was never publicly screened and is now lost, believed to have been destroyed by Chaplin as a tax saving ploy.

'Underworld' 1927

Sternberg joined Paramount Pictures and in 1927 created the movie 'Underworld' which cemented his reputation as a brilliantly innovative new director. Initially Paramount released the film in only one theater, believing it to be non commercial, but they were wrong. The film created a sensation and by word of mouth alone, went on to become a major hit. It was the first true gangster movie and made its leading man, George Bancroft, a star, and launched a whole cycle of gangster films. The writer, Ben Hecht, won an Oscar.

Sternberg was now one of Hollywood's top directors and he continued to direct masterful silent movies such as 'The Last Command' and 'The Docks of New York' both in 1928. His first talkie, 'Thunderbolt' in 1929, shows an immediate grasp of how to use sound. But it was with 'Der Blaue Engel' in 1930 that von Sternberg came into his own. It was a landmark film made in both German and English versions, in which he cast Marlene Dietrich as the female lead, Lola Lola, and which made her an instant international star.

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich, aged 29, had made twenty movies by 1930 and was already a minor celebrity in Germany. She was also an accomplished stage actress and singer, but from the time she began filming with von Sternberg, she never again acted on stage. He took over her career, teaching and moulding her, insisting, for instance that she should lose weight. Six years younger than von Sternberg, Dietrich idolised him and they quickly became lovers.

Von Sternberg returned to America and Dietrich followed soon after. Paramount had delayed the American release of 'The Blue Angel' in order to introduce Dietrich to the public in a role less decadent than Lola Lola, and von Sternberg was able to provide just the film. 'Morocco' in 1930 made Dietrich a star in America and von Sternberg received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He made five more films with Dietrich, obsessing over his star and their relationship. Those five films - 'Dishonored' in 1931, 'Shanghai Express' and 'Blonde Venus' in 1932, 'The Scarlet Empress' in 1934, and 'The Devil Is a Woman' in 1935 - are among the most remarkable ever made. The best of them, 'Shanghai Express', for which von Sternberg received a second Oscar nomination for Best Director, is a stunning foray into pre-design and stylized writing that transcends its form to become a moving drama of love and faith without losing its cynical psychosexual edge. Nearly as good is the baroque 'The Scarlet Empress', probably the most style-driven movie of the 1930's.

But towards the end of this fruitful period, von Sternberg's movies began to lose their dramatic edge, and 'The Devil Is a Woman' in 1935 did not do well at the box office. He and Dietrich went their separate ways. When von Sternberg left both Paramount and Marlene Dietrich, it was the end of the most artistically rich period of his life. Over the next 34 years he would complete only seven films, none of them particularly successful

Career after Dietrich

After 1935 von Sternberg's work never reached the heights of his rewarding collaboration with Dietrich but some of his work was of high quality. He moved from Paramount to the much more budget-conscious Columbia Pictures where he made two films, 'Crime and Punishment' in 1935 and the operetta 'The King Steps Out' in 1936 but neither film did well commercially.

There followed, in 1937, an unsuccessful attempt by von Sternberg, to film the Robert Graves novel, 'I, Claudius' for British producer Alexander Korda, starring Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon. For a month the egos of von Sternberg and Laughton clashed until filming was abandoned by Korda, using the convenient excuse of Merle Oberon's minor car accident and insurance claim.

Von Sternberg's post-Dietrich work was sporadic but often interesting. In 1939 he made an early film noir, 'Sergeant Madden', starring Wallace Beery, and 'The Shanghai Gesture' in 1941 was especially striking visually, with its glamorous casino and spinning roulette wheels, as von Sternberg showed the dangers of gambling addiction.

His last Hollywood film was 'Macao' in 1952, but the star, Robert Mitchum, did not like his dictatorial ways and von Sternberg was replaced by Nicholas Ray midway through the production. In 1952 von Sternberg went to Japan, and made what was to be his last movie, 'The Saga of Anatahan' . It was written, photographed and directed by von Sternberg in a makeshift studio and it turned out a financial failure.


Physically, von Sternberg was not an impressive figure. Years of malnutrition during his poverty stricken childhood had stunted his growth (his full adult height was 5 feet four inches), but he did not suffer from a lack of female admirers.

He was married three times, firstly in 1926 to actress Riza Royce, divorcing in 1930. His second marriage, to Jean Avette McBride, was short-lived from 1945 to 1947, and his third and final marriage was in 1948 to Meri Otis Wilner. The couple had one child and stayed together until von Sternberg's death.

He retired from active movie making in 1952. For four years from 1959 he lectured on the aesthetics of film at the University of California in Los Angeles, where his students included future members of 'The Doors' pop group, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. Rerences to von Sternberg films appear in some of the group's songs, providing an unusual modern American pop twist to a life which began in nineteenth century Austria. He published a well received autobiography, "Fun in a Chinese Laundry" in 1965.

Nothing in his life and career ever scaled the heights of his richest and most obsessive period from 1930 to 1935, and his name will remain ever linked with that of Dietrich.

Josef von Sternberg died on 22 December, 1969, from a heart attack, aged 75 years. He was buried in the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.

Josef von Sternberg Academy Awards

No Wins:

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... Morocco (1930)
Best Director ... Shanghai Express (1932)

Josef von Sternberg Filmography

The Salvation Hunters
The Masked Bride (uncredited)
Exquisite Sinner (fired>
A Woman of the Sea
It (uncredited)
Children of Divorce (uncredited)
The Last Command
Street of Sin (uncredited)
The Dragnet
The Docks of New York
The Case of Lena Smith (Short)
The Blue Angel (in German)
The Blue Angel (alternate English language version)
An American Tragedy
Shanghai Express
Blonde Venus
The Scarlet Empress
The Devil Is a Woman
Crime and Punishment
The Fashion Side of Hollywood (Documentary short)
The King Steps Out
I, Claudius (unfinished)
The Great Waltz (uncredited)
Sergeant Madden