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Josef von Sternberg: Eros and Abstraction

January 15, 2009 - February 22, 2009

Underworld, January 15

“Hollywood’s master craftsman, Josef von Sternberg . . . could out-light, out-design, and out-fetishize any director on the lot.”—J. Hoberman, Village Voice

Born to an impoverished Jewish family, raised in Vienna and New York, Jonas Sternberg was a high-school dropout who happened into a job in the movies. The cinema elevated him not only to faux aristocracy—a producer added the “von” to his name—but to “the highest pantheon of twentieth-century art” (Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinema). Sternberg (1894–1969) transformed the nether realms of human experience into worlds of picturesque poetry, where decor stands in for society, costume is character, and emotions are phenomena of pattern and light. Pacing and plot are irrelevant to a transcendent glamour, defined by the director as “a play of fluid values, of imponderables artfully arranged in a spiritual space, a visual stimulant achieved by flummery.”

The most famous product of Sternbergian flummery is still Marlene Dietrich, who played Galatea to his Pygmalion in seven films that straddle the boundary between collaboration and obsession. But there was much more to Sternberg than Dietrich. This retrospective unveils the director’s work in all its strange and intricate richness. As scholar Janet Bergstrom—our guest on February 8—has written, “Sternberg’s films cannot be appreciated—not really—unless they are projected onto the big screen. . . . [They] move you toward an unexpected, imaginary world built up through detail, with orchestrated light and shadow, movements in and out of visibility . . . making you want to see more.”

Juliet Clark

Thursday, January 15, 2009
7:30 p.m. Underworld
Judith Rosenberg on Piano. Sternberg’s silent gangster epic, based on a treatment by Ben Hecht. “The fusion of Hecht’s hardboiled guys and molls and Sternberg’s otherworldly atmospherics makes this gangland tale of competing loyalties wonderfully entertaining.”—New Yorker

Sunday, January 18, 2009
5:30 p.m. The Last Command
Judith Rosenberg on Piano. Emil Jannings stars in “one of the strangest, greatest, and cruelest films about Hollywood during the silent era.”—Janet Bergstrom

Tuesday, January 20, 2009
7:30 p.m. Children of Divorce
Judith Rosenberg on Piano. Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in a rarely screened melodrama. With documentary D’un silence à l’autre: Josef von Sternberg.

Saturday, January 24, 2009
6:30 p.m. The Docks of New York
Judith Rosenberg on Piano. “A complex waterfront melodrama of moral rebirth and one of the photographic glories of American silent cinema.”—Village Voice

Saturday, January 31, 2009
4:00 p.m. Thunderbolt
Sternberg’s first talkie is “less a gangster film than a gangster fantasy.”—Andrew Sarris

Sunday, February 1, 2009
2:00 p.m. The Blue Angel
Prim professor Emil Jannings is destroyed by his obsession with cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich in the film that launched Dietrich’s screen career. With Dietrich’s screen test and The World of Josef von Sternberg.

Friday, February 6, 2009
6:30 p.m. Morocco
Dietrich wears the pants in her first American film, costarring Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou.

Saturday, February 7, 2009
6:30 p.m. An American Tragedy
Sternberg’s adaptation of Dreiser’s novel is “a vastly underrated, rarely screened film . . . the understated opposite of A Place in the Sun.”—Janet Bergstrom

Saturday, February 7, 2009
8:30 p.m. Dishonored
Dietrich is a prostitute turned Austrian spy in “Sternberg’s most outrageous examination of the feminine mystique.”—Village Voice

Sunday, February 8, 2009
2:00 p.m. The Salvation Hunters
Illustrated Lecture by Janet Bergstrom. Judith Rosenberg on Piano. Sternberg’s starkly poetic first feature.

Thursday, February 12, 2009
6:30 p.m. Shanghai Express
Dietrich as the notorious Shanghai Lily in “a triumphant fusion of sin, glamour, shamelessness, art, and, perhaps, a furtive sense of humor.”—Pauline Kael

Thursday, February 12, 2009
8:15 p.m. Blonde Venus
Dietrich singing “Hot Voodoo” in a gorilla suit is just one of the strange pleasures of Sternberg’s trip across Depression America.

Saturday, February 14, 2009
6:30 p.m. The Scarlet Empress
Dietrich as Catherine the Great in Sternberg’s extravagant fantasy of Russia.

Friday, February 20, 2009
6:30 p.m. The Devil Is a Woman
Set in Spain, Sternberg’s last film with Dietrich is a moody and outlandish meditation on the femme fatale. With short The Fashion Side of Hollywood.

Friday, February 20, 2009
8:30 p.m. Crime and Punishment
Peter Lorre as the sulking, skulking protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s stark tale. With short The Town.

Sunday, February 22, 2009
6:30 p.m. The Saga of Anatahan
This late work made in Japan is “a masterpiece, to rank with the Dietrich films.”—David Thomson

Series curated by Susan Oxtoby. Co-presented by Goethe-Institut San Francisco.

PFA wishes to thank the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Chris Horak and Todd Wiener, UCLA Film & Television Archive; Mike Mashon and Rob Stone, Library of Congress; Anne Morra, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Martin Koerber, Deutsche Kinemathek; Hiroshi Komatsu, Theatre Museum Waseda University; Paul Ginsburg, Universal; Emily Horn, Paramount Pictures; Grover Crisp and Helena Brissenden, Sony Pictures; Gary Palmucci, Kino International; Janet Bergstrom, UCLA; Guy Borlee, Il Cinema Ritrovato; George Kaltsounakis and Brad Deane, Cinematheque Ontario; and Ingrid Eggers, Goethe-Institut San Francisco.

Archival and restored prints and musical accompaniment for silent films are presented with support from the Packard Humanities Institute.