Criterion Press Release: Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood (Blu-ray)

3 Stars

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Tasked by studio executives with finding the next great screen siren, visionary Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg joined forces with rising German actor Marlene Dietrich, kicking off what would become one of the most legendary partnerships in cinema history. Over the course of six films produced by Paramount in the 1930s, the pair refined their shared fantasy of pleasure, beauty, and excess. Dietrich’s coolly transgressive mystique was a perfect match for the provocative roles von Sternberg cast her in—including a sultry chanteuse, a cunning spy, and the hedonistic Catherine the Great—and the filmmaker captured her allure with chiaroscuro lighting and opulent design, conjuring fever-dream visions of exotic settings from Morocco to Shanghai. Suffused with frank sexuality and worldly irony, these deliriously entertaining masterpieces are landmarks of cinematic artifice.

July 3, 2018​

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Ronald Epstein

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33 Comments

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  2. battlebeast

    I’d like to think the complete Metropolis or MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD are.

    Still very good news!

    If you had come of age in the late 1960's, surrounded by a tattered, crass, and tawdry culture, and suddenly were faced with the indescribable majesty of the Dietrich-Von Sternberg films, in beautiful 35mm nitrate prints, whose divine majesty and dazzling graces held at its core a vision of something beyond your dreams, of shadows playing out subterfuges that somehow became identified by a quick shrug of a caped gentleman through a maze of shimmering confetti; yet that brief gesture seemed to open up for you whole new words of possibilities, which couldn't really be articulated except for being lived in—then perhaps you might understand.

    Seeing those films at the age of seventeen is the reason I'm here on this board today. But more to the point, this is the reason I am the person I am. To say that those Dietrich-Von Sternberg films impart a sense of style and consciousness along with a kind of stoicism transformed by a visual ecstasy that is beyond words yet somehow full of meaning for those of us who have basked in that glow, is I guess, pretty inarticulate. Yet watching those films–for me–created a kind of transport, which has enriched my life immeasurably.

  3. Beautifully put, Mark!

    I discovered SCARLET EMPRESS when I was about 20, and just getting into silent/early sound films beyond the usual 2-reel comedies that were then available as Blackhawk prints from the public library. Channel 44 in Chicago aired EMPRESS, shorn of about 10 minutes, which I didn't realize until quite some time later…probably at the time that I acquired a 16mm print. But I recorded it to Beta and watched it over and over, in addition to DEVIL, which Channel 44 ran a little while later. And that was it…these two have remained my two all-time favorite films ever since, followed closely by SHANGHAI EXPRESS. I suppose I've seen the first two at least 30-40 times each.

  4. battlebeast

    I’d like to think the complete Metropolis or MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD are.

    Still very good news!

    Or for me LoA or FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL – but different strokes for different folks 😉 !

  5. Danny Burk

    Beautifully put, Mark!

    I discovered SCARLET EMPRESS when I was about 20, and just getting into silent/early sound films beyond the usual 2-reel comedies that were then available as Blackhawk prints from the public library. Channel 44 in Chicago aired EMPRESS, shorn of about 10 minutes, which I didn't realize until quite some time later…probably at the time that I acquired a 16mm print. But I recorded it to Beta and watched it over and over, in addition to DEVIL, which Channel 44 ran a little while later. And that was it…these two have remained my two all-time favorite films ever since, followed closely by SHANGHAI EXPRESS. I suppose I've seen the first two at least 30-40 times each.

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Danny. The first Von Sternberg film I saw was without Dietrich. I was a freshman at CCNY in the fall of '69, and quickly discovered that they really didn't (at that time) have much in the way of a film department. But they did have one course, called "Introduction to Film" taught by one Herman G. Weinberg, a diminutive, bespectacled gentleman in a rumpled suit, whose voice rattled as he spoke, somewhat similar to the voice of "Alpha 60" in Godard's ALPHAVILLE.

    In any case, he asked us what our favorite films were. Many of the students said BONNIE & CLYDE or THE GRADUATE. Professor Weinberg said, "They haven't made a good film since 1939…except for one." And then he showed us THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, in a really good 35mm print. I'd never seen anything like it. The film seemed to exist in a different world than the one I was aware of, let alone the movies that I had experienced up to that time. Everything in it was of a piece, the long crane shots through smoky tendrils into a gigantic roulette wheel, a wheel of fortune that all the characters seemed to be controlled by, even as they pretended to be masters of their own fate, Victor Mature's soft, flowing voice, which seemed to evaporate as he spoke, and of course Gene Tierney's otherwordly beauty. The film seemed to be the visual equivalent of certain poems, whose metaphorical phrases entrance, and yet quickly become evanescent, vaporous.

    I had to see more. I noticed in "Cue" magazine that THE SCARLET EMPRESS was playing in a revival house on Broadway that week. So I went. That was even more amazing. Especially the beginning, where as a child the Dietrich character is being read a book about the Czars of Russia, and as the pages turned, there were what seemed like innumerable images of horror and unspeakable acts, draped in fabric and lights and glowing presences, that passed so quickly before one's eyes that you weren't really certain you had seen anything at all. So I stayed and saw it again. And again. And soon after that, MOMA showed all of the Hollywood Von Sternberg-Dietrich films, starting with Morocco. I believe they were nitrate prints, because everytime Dietrich would move her feathered boa, the air around her glowed. I began to recognize that all the male characters were really aspects of Von Sternberg, and that in spite of the fact that these films had characters and often very complex plots, they were really experimental films, a personal, poetic universe of smoke and shadows in which the deepest parts of himself existed. In any case, I can't wait to see these again.

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  7. lark144

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Danny. The first Von Sternberg film I saw was without Dietrich. I was a freshman at CCNY in the fall of '69, and quickly discovered that they really didn't (at that time) have much in the way of a film department. But they did have one course, called "Introduction to Film" taught by one Herman G. Weinberg, a diminutive, bespectacled gentleman in a rumpled suit, whose voice rattled as he spoke, somewhat similar to the voice of "Alpha 60" in Godard's ALPHAVILLE.

    In any case, he asked us what our favorite films were. Many of the students said BONNIE & CLYDE or THE GRADUATE. Professor Weinberg said, "They haven't made a good film since 1939…except for one." And then he showed us THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, in a really good 35mm print. I'd never seen anything like it. The film seemed to exist in a different world than the one I was aware of, let alone the movies that I had experienced up to that time. Everything in it was of a piece, the long crane shots through smoky tendrils into a gigantic roulette wheel, a wheel of fortune that all the characters seemed to be controlled by, even as they pretended to be masters of their own fate, Victor Mature's soft, flowing voice, which seemed to evaporate as he spoke, and of course Gene Tierney's otherwordly beauty. The film seemed to be the visual equivalent of certain poems, whose metaphorical phrases entrance, and yet quickly become evanescent, vaporous.

    I had to see more. I noticed in "Cue" magazine that THE SCARLET EMPRESS was playing in a revival house on Broadway that week. So I went. That was even more amazing. Especially the beginning, where as a child the Dietrich character is being read a book about the Czars of Russia, and as the pages turned, there were what seemed like innumerable images of horror and unspeakable acts, draped in fabric and lights and glowing presences, that passed so quickly before one's eyes that you weren't really certain you had seen anything at all. So I stayed and saw it again. And again. And soon after that, MOMA showed all of the Hollywood Von Sternberg-Dietrich films, starting with Morocco. I believe they were nitrate prints, because everytime Dietrich would move her feathered boa, the air around her glowed. I began to recognize that all the male characters were really aspects of Von Sternberg, and that in spite of the fact that these films had characters and often very complex plots, they were really experimental films, a personal, poetic universe of smoke and shadows in which the deepest parts of himself existed. In any case, I can't wait to see these again.

    Thanks for those great anecdotes, Mark. What an experience to have Weinberg as your instructor. I have all of his von Stroheim books. SHANGHAI GESTURE is another favorite of mine. How can you not love Ona Munson and her ribbon-candy hair?

    I've never seen nitrates of the von Sternbergs. Not even 35mm prints, now that I think about it. Just the 16mm prints that I used to have, and video of ever-increasing quality. Beta/VHS, then DVD, and now moving to blu-ray at last. Nothing will really compete with nitrate, though. I have a friend in California who has seen UCLA's nitrate EMPRESS and proclaims it the most beautiful b&w print of any film he's seen, and he's very experienced with nitrate showings. I'm counting the days till the new set arrives!

  8. What great news! This and A Matter of Life and Death give deep classic film fans hope that more of this sort will be on the way. I'm praying that Universal and Criterion might also team up on an early DeMille boxed set sometime in the future. Wonder if the Von Sternberg silents Underworld, Docks of New York and Last Command might see an HD upgrade. The release of Last Command in Europe recently gives a glimmer of hope.

  9. lark144

    If you had come of age in the late 1960's, surrounded by a tattered, crass, and tawdry culture, and suddenly were faced with the indescribable majesty of the Dietrich-Von Sternberg films, in beautiful 35mm nitrate prints, whose divine majesty and dazzling graces held at its core a vision of something beyond your dreams, of shadows playing out subterfuges that somehow became identified by a quick shrug of a caped gentleman through a maze of shimmering confetti; yet that brief gesture seemed to open up for you whole new words of possibilities, which couldn't really be articulated except for being lived in—then perhaps you might understand.

    Seeing those films at the age of seventeen is the reason I'm here on this board today. But more to the point, this is the reason I am the person I am. To say that those Dietrich-Von Sternberg films impart a sense of style and consciousness along with a kind of stoicism transformed by a visual ecstasy that is beyond words yet somehow full of meaning for those of us who have basked in that glow, is I guess, pretty inarticulate. Yet watching those films–for me–created a kind of transport, which has enriched my life immeasurably.

    I understand, but I referencing the fact that the lost footage was found and replaced in the film.

  10. battlebeast

    I understand, but I referencing the fact that the lost footage was found and replaced in the film.[/QUOT

    Ah, well, in that case, since we're talking about 30 seconds of material, yes.

  11. …although those 30 seconds that were missing from the DVD of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (according to web reports at the time, that footage wasn't lost but was simply taken out because it was deemed to be in "bad shape") are critical in terms of defining the pentameters of Von Sternber'g moral universe, and the importance of character over politics.

  12. lark144

    …although those 30 seconds that were missing from the DVD of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (according to web reports at the time, that footage wasn't lost but was simply taken out because it was deemed to be in "bad shape") are critical in terms of defining the pentameters of Von Sternber'g moral universe, and the importance of character over politics.

    The 16mm print that I used to have included that scene; I wonder when it "disappeared"? I don't remember the edge code on my print, but it was probably struck in the late '50s – '60s.

  13. lark144

    Ah, well, in that case, since we're talking about 30 seconds of material, yes.

    I wasn’t talking not about 30 seconds but 25 MINUTES of footage lost and inserted back into METROPOLIS and likewise for MAD WORLD. But I do hope the missing 30 seconds is put back. I’m sure Criterion would not release the film cut like that.

  14. Anyone reading this within the next few hours can get a preview of the set on Turner Classic Movies HD who are running Scarlet Empress, Shanghai Express and Morocco back to back. Scarlet Empress is obviously a new restoration, with a sharp picture, beautiful greyscale and no specks or dirt. It's black and white at it's best. No reason to doubt the next two titles won't also be premiere restorations.

  15. battlebeast

    Is The Blue Angel Available?

    I bought the two-disc set with both the German and English versions during the last Kino sale. I'd been wanting it for ages, and there it was ripe for the picking!

  16. Matt Hough

    I bought the two-disc set with both the German and English versions during the last Kino sale. I'd been wanting it for ages, and there it was ripe for the picking!

    Does it include the screen test of Marlene?

  17. battlebeast

    Does it include the screen test of Marlene?

    The "Ultimate Edition"
    View attachment 47753
    does (in SD) I believe it is on the US version … (The single disc is only the German version)

    • Scene Comparison (SD, 3:13): A look at the differences between the German and English versions, looking at an early scene where the professor enters his classroom, blows his nose, and calls one student to the front of the class.
    • Marlene's Screen Test (SD, 3:39): Sultry Dietrich smokes a cigarette and sings "You're the Cream in My Coffee." Made in 1929 at the Babelsberger studios.
    • Dietrich Archival Footage (SD): Here you'll find a short clip from a 1971 interview (1:27) relating to The Blue Angel, a 1963 performance of "Falling in Love Again" (3:28), and 1972 performances of "You're the Cream in My Coffee" (3:32) and "Lola" (2:15).
    • Trailers (SD): Includes a 1930s-era trailer (3:43) and one from a re-release in the 1960s (3:02).
    • Image Gallery: A user-directed gallery with sixteen stills, posters, and promo images.

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