Josef von Sternberg

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From left to right: Josef von Sternberg, Setsuko Hara and Arnold Fanck in Japan, 1936

Josef von Sternberg , originally Jonas Sternberg (born May 29, 1894 in Vienna , Austria-Hungary , † December 22, 1969 in Los Angeles County ), was an American director of Austrian origin. He is best known for his seven films with Marlene Dietrich , including The Blue Angel and Morocco .


Start of career

Sternberg was the son of the Jewish businessman Moses Sternberg from Kraków and his wife Serafine, née. Singer. Because of the father's business, the family lived in Vienna or New York from 1901 . The family moved to the USA in 1908. After first working in a film repair workshop under the stage name Josef von Sternberg, he moved to Hollywood in 1923, where he first worked as an assistant director for the film By Divine Right . In 1924 he met the German writer and screenwriter Karl Gustav Vollmoeller through the mediation of Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford , who invited him to Venice and Berlin in 1925 and introduced him to the actor Emil Jannings . He filmed The Salvation Hunters with actor George K. Arthur in 1925 for only US $ 50,000 , which was shot on a large steam excavator in the swamps near San Pedro Bay. The film caught the attention of a few critics, who praised Sternberg's innovative use of light and shadow in the dramaturgy of a scene. Although plans to shoot a film with Mary Pickford were broken up afterwards, Sternberg finally got a contract with MGM . However, working with the studio managers and the stars was not easy. For example, Sternberg, who is notorious as autocratic, argued violently with the leading actress Mae Murray for weeks during the filming of The Masked Bride . Finally, the contract was terminated by mutual agreement. A short time later he got the offer to shoot the film A Woman of the Sea (also: The Sea Gull) for Edna Purviance , the former leading actress of Chaplin . However, Chaplin decided not to give the finished film for distribution as he considered it too intellectual for the masses' taste. In the 1930s, Chaplin had the negative destroyed in order to be able to deduct the filming costs for tax purposes. The few people who had seen the strip claimed it was one of the most beautiful and visually impressive works in American cinema.


The tide turned for von Sternberg when he got a contract with Paramount in 1927 . After he had re-produced a few scenes for films that had already been shot, such as It and Children of Divorce , both with Clara Bow , he got the chance to shoot the film Underworld later that year . The screenplay by Ben Hecht cast a concerned look behind the scenes of organized crime for the first time and von Sternberg turned it into a gripping gangster film. At the same time he composed scenes from light and shadow that led a critic to remark that von Sternberg would use the camera like the painter uses his brush. After the overwhelming commercial success, von Sternberg was entrusted with the direction of His Last Command , which was filmed with Emil Jannings , the studio's most precious star. One year later, Jannings became the first actor to win the Oscar in the Best Actor category for this performance . In the same year, The Docks of New York, one of the most mature and visually beautiful films of his career, followed. The story of a sailor and a prostitute was turned into a symphony of shadows and light effects by von Sternberg.

In 1929 Josef von Sternberg went to Germany to film the first sound film with the star Emil Jannings at UFA , in which Paramount held shares. The contract with the UFA brokered Karl Gustav Vollmoeller , who was put at his side as a screenwriter, technical advisor and general editor by the UFA. It is also thanks to him that the film rights to the novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann under the title The Blue Angel were sold to UFA. The main female role should initially be given to a wide variety of actresses, u. a. Louise Brooks . But in the end the choice fell on Marlene Dietrich , because Vollmoeller preferred her and was able to push through against all odds, so that she had her breakthrough with this film. “I urged Mr. von Sternberg to cast for the starring role Miss Marlene Dietrich a young actress who was as yet unknown, but who, I believed, had all potentialities of a great star. Mr. von Sternberg respects my opinion about such matters ... ” wrote Vollmoeller in his autobiographical notes. The director and his creature traveled to America on the evening of the premiere, where they began filming for Morocco . Dietrich was set up by the studio as an answer to Greta Garbo , but von Sternberg turned the actress into a screen personality of her own in the course of six films together. However, von Sternberg was quickly accused by the press of paying too much attention to the visual aspects and the staging of his leading actress and of placing too little value on a good script. The well-known journalist Elizabeth Yeaman stated in her column on September 1, 1931, in which she reported on the filming of Shanghai Express :

... I wouldn't be surprised if Miss Dietrich gets Shanghai Express. You see she has never yet had a real break on a story. That is not because Paramount has neglected Marlene, but Josef von Sternberg doesn't care much about strong stories. If he has too much story he can't find room for his artistic effects, and these effects are much more important to him than story. But the fact remains that the public likes a good sound story, one that is plausible and human.

Especially the film Blonde Venus , which both shot in 1932 immediately after their greatest financial success Shanghai Express , made the indicated weaknesses in von Sternberg clear. Dietrich, who finally wanted a change of role, away from the eternal seductress, asked for material that showed her as a caring wife and good mother. However, von Sternberg did not like the concept and also showed Dietrich as a cabaret star. At no point was there a coherent script and in the end, in the opinion of the critics, only the musical scenes were convincing, such as the famous Hot Voodoo number, in which Dietrich first comes on stage disguised as a gorilla and then peeled off her costume . In 1931, the director took over a half-finished script that Sergei Eisenstein had written based on the social novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser before he was forced out of the project. Von Sternberg rejected most of the ideas and started from scratch. The result split criticism like hardly any of his works before. On the one hand, they praised the well-known compositions of light and shadow as well as the play by Sylvia Sidney as Drina. But overall there was agreement that Dreiser's biting social commentary and Sternberg's more lyrical narrative style were mutually exclusive.

After Dietrich had shot the less successful film Song of Songs under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian under pressure from the studio and against the background of the less encouraging box office results from Blonde Venus in 1933, the two artists reunited in mid-1934. In response to the very successful film Queen Christine , which showed Garbo as Queen of Sweden a year earlier, Paramount wanted to present his own glamor star as a famous ruler. The historical film Die Scharlachrote Kaiserin with Dietrich as Catherine the Great was made under Sternberg's direction . During the filming, which was again marked by endless changes to the script, and in the midst of escalating production costs (for example, von Sternberg demanded real ermine for the tsarina's dressing room), a famous anecdote broke out. The actor Sam Jaffe , who played the empress's moronic husband, was supposed to repeat a scene endlessly because Sternberg hadn't liked any of the details. At one point, Jaffe complained about how the director treated him. Von Sternberg took Jaffe aside and said, “Mr. Jaffe, you know, I have 70 million followers in Japan alone. " Jaffe said dryly: "Fine, Jesus only had 12." After that, the actor didn't have to do reruns. The Von Sternberg Dietrich collaboration ended the following year with Der Teufel ist ein Frau , a story about a Spanish dancer. Dietrich liked the film more than anyone else because, according to the actress, He made me look so beautiful. The film was artistically and financially a disaster.

Later years

In 1935, after the financial failures of Die Scharlachrote Kaiserin and Der Teufel ist ein Frau , von Sternberg moved to Columbia Pictures , where he shot an operetta with Grace Moore about the life of Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) of Austria. The following year he was hired by Alexander Korda to film I, Claudius , but the filming turned into a disaster. The leading actress Merle Oberon almost died in a traffic accident, the financing of the film failed and in the end the production was stopped. However, the few surviving scenes are considered the best that von Sternberg ever shot. From 1935, Sternberg lived in a house built by the architect Richard Neutra in the San Fernando Valley .

At the personal request of Louis B. Mayer , von Sternberg was commissioned in 1938 to turn his Austrian discovery into Hedy Lamarr into the world's greatest star. The production of I Take This Woman soon turned into a full blown disaster that lasted over 16 months, with almost the entire cast changed and three directors taking turns. Eventually von Sternberg found himself directing Wallace Beery in the cop drama Sergeant Madden . With the exception of Settlement in Shanghai , which tells the story of Mother Gin Sling and her brothel, and the drama The Saga of Anatahan , his later work was no longer on the level of the Paramount years. The Saga of Anatahan told the true story of Japanese soldiers who remained on the island of Anatahan for seven years after the war ended because they refused to accept the Japanese surrender.

In 1963 Josef von Sternberg received the gold film tape for his many years of outstanding work in German film. In 1967 he presented his autobiography " Ich - Josef von Sternberg. Memories " at the Frankfurt Book Fair .

Sternberg died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles County hospital in December 1969 and was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery .

Private life

Josef von Sternberg was first married to the film actress Riza Royce (1903–1980) from 1926 to 1930. In 1945 he married Jean Avette McBride (* 1894). The marriage ended in divorce in 1947. With the art historian Meri Otis Wilner (1920–2015) von Sternberg was married from 1948 until his death. From this marriage comes his son Nicholas Josef von Sternberg, who was born in 1951.



Oscar / Best Director

Other awards (selection)


  • Josef von Sternberg - A representation . Alice Goetz & Helmut W. Banz in collaboration with Otto Kellner. Mannheim: Association of German Film Clubs eV 1966
  • I - Josef von Sternberg. Memories (Fun In a Chinese Laundry) . Friedrich, Velbert near Hanover 1967
  • Frieda Grafe: As if it were a Sternberg film - more than an autobiography . First published in: The time of December 1, 1967. In: From the Off - To the cinema in the sixties (= selected writings in individual volumes, 4th volume). Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin 2003. ISBN 3-922660-84-3 . Pp. 149-152.
  • Frederik D. Tunnat: Karl Vollmoeller: poet and cultural manager; a biography . tredition, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-86850-000-4 (on the friendship between von Sternberg and Karl Vollmoeller and background information on the creation of the Blue Angel)
  • Alexander Horwath, Michael Omasta (eds.), Josef von Sternberg. The Case of Lena Smith , FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen Volume 5, Vienna 2007, ISBN 978-3-901644-22-1

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. according to the Kay Less film archive , based on original documents from 1908 to 1925
  2. Hellmuth Karasek : The star of the century Marlene Dietrich - from the lascivious nanny to the worldwide adored goddess of film history, often reviled in her homeland. From Hellmuth Karasek: The unloved angel . In: Der Spiegel . tape June 25 , 19, 2000 ( [accessed February 10, 2018]).
  3. some sources speak of Beverly Hills , others of Hollywood
  4. “A place in the film pantheon is reserved for him. On the death of the director Josef von Sternberg ”in Schwäbische Zeitung of December 24, 1969, p. 4
  5. Find A Grave

4. Obituary notice "Madame Meri von Sternberg". In: Tribune de Genève, Lundi 24 juillet 2017,