Film Bites: A Brief History of Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg was born Jonas Sternberg and grew up in Vienna in the shadow of the big wheel later immortalized by Orson Welles in The Third Man.

His mother had been a circus performer and still occasionally walked the tightrope despite 5 children to look after. Father, Moses, emigrated to US when J was small. He brought the family to America then all went back to Vienna. J learned to be independent and went back on his own as a teenager – so, if not exactly a comfortable life, he was able to survive on both continents.

He had grown up around circus and did menial jobs there; in the States he ended up working at a milliner’s and at a lace house – all influences on his later style – then as a film cleaner and patcher in the emerging film industry, eventually working for William Brady’s film co in New Jersey.

Brady was a producer and distributor who made a picture a week! with his wife and daughter as stars. This in-house control was very influential to J who worked his way up from runner to editor to assistant dir and finally director.

His 1st film was The Salvation Hunters (1925) made in LA on a tiny self financed budget. “Discovered “ by D Fairbanks and Chaplin’s United Artists co – was called a genius – for the first time and began to try to live up to this, calling himself Josef von Sternberg and developing his trademark reptilian sneer and swagger.

Chaplin asked him to make “Woman of the Sea” and financed it himself – the only other person he ever asked to direct a picture – which was then never shown, destroyed in mysterious circumstances. Only a handful of people saw it. Afterwards Chaplin said he made it for a joke.

Von Sternberg kept working in Hollywood but made enemies and could often only find work as an assistant – finally he directed Underworld (1927) for Paramount, which was a hit, and then The Last Command starring Emil Jannings, whose thick German accent didn’t matter as he was playing a Russian general!

Jannings won an Academy Award for his performance and was known as one of the great actors of his generation (he had also starred in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, 1924) but later in Betrayal (Milestone, 1929) with Gary Cooper, his voice and accent were so dreadful that the picture, made as a talkie, was released as a silent picture.

Jannings had been brought to Hollywood by Paramount’s star director Ernst Lubitsch. There was an established traffic between American and German film makers and stars but as American films began to flood the European market, Germany’s UFA – which started as a propaganda machine in the first world war and was eventually taken over by Dr Goebbels – wanted to reclaim a European film industry – albeit one which would cross over to English speaking audiences and help to keep financing their own productions.

UFA producers still had financial ties with Paramount and began to consider an Anglo-German production that would work on both sides of the Atlantic. Jannings was given another chance to make a talking picture and would be the star, again playing another Russian in the role of Rasputin. Lubitsch was bilingual and had worked on both continents so was the natural choice for director – but he wanted too much money.

Enter Von Sternberg…


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