The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by closeups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.
Curiously, one of the most precise analyses of the films that Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together comes from a single page of an essay that reads more like a takedown. Laura Mulvey’s epochal feminist treatise “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” places von Sternberg’s films within the phallocentric aesthetic tradition of classical Hollywood continuity. There, Mulvey argued that von Sternberg’s films render the female body as “perfect product” and “ultimate fetish,” the ultimate object of the gaze. And Dietrich serves, at once, as the supreme example and a devious counterexample.
But perhaps this points us to the great paradox at the heart of these films, an index of the pleasure and pain so intricately intertwined within them. This densely perverse sensation guides the cycle of films Dietrich and von Sternberg made together from 1930’s Morocco to 1935’s The Devil Is a Woman, in which the pair crafted a uniquely sensuous and deranged universe of preposterous exoticism and deviant pleasures. It’s a demimonde of nightclubs, boudoirs, and dungeons arrayed across an ersatz geography from the Maghreb to Mitteleuropa, the Deep South to Imperial Russia. In each, Dietrich plays some variation of the same chanteuse-sex-worker-coaster-queen, navigating the shifting shadows of what Jack Smith called “the neurotic gothic deviated sex-colored world.”
For Mulvey, von Sternberg’s films stand in contrast with Hitchcock’s films in that they lack the ”mediation of the look through the eyes of the main male protagonist.” Instead, everything that might intervene in the viewer’s appreciation of “the woman as icon” is minimized: von Sternberg “plays down the illusion of screen depth” in favor of a purely two-dimensional, nearly abstract screen-space comprising “light and shade, lace, steam, foliage, net, streamers, etc. [that] reduce the visual field.” And its paper-thin plots, which advance from situation to situation with a dreamy and fragmentary cyclicality, serve only as the most basic structures to sustain this direct access. In 1934’s The Scarlet Empress, the film follows the maturation to sociopathy and sexual dominance in Dietrich’s Catherine the Great more through her veils than through dialogue: first, at her wedding, the white tulle-on-white face gives Catherine a beatific glow; midway, after birth of her bastard child, black netting obscures a blurry Catherine beneath; and by the end of film, Catherine playfully manipulates a swirl-patterned white organza as she toys with her would-be lover, Count Alexei.
It’s worth pausing over Mulvey’s brilliantly concise description to ponder just where these films sit within the history of cinema, phallocentric or otherwise. Indeed, what one might notice about these films today is the extent to which they rupture, rather than instantiate, a certain kind of classical continuity. Certainly, nearly all of the films they made together were based on well-worn movie genres: the French Foreign Legion movie (à la Beau Geste), the lady-spy film (Mata Hari), the royal biopic (Queen Christina), the maternal weepie (Madame X and Stella Dallas, both twenties films remade later in the thirties), exotic chinoiserie (take your pick). But the form of von Sternberg’s films wander far astray of that of the typical studio production. In their abstracted sense of space—in which as Gilles Deleuze noticed, closeups “abstract[ed] from all spatio-temporal co-ordinates,” existing for the spectator’s gaze alone—the conventions of editing are at least bent, if not unrecognizably warped. Even during Dietrich’s masterful performance sequences, shot-reverse shot construction is often destabilized with indirect or faulty eyeline matching, and frequently action seems to take place across a flat, almost theatrically horizontal axis of alignment.
If these works operate so far afield from what we have come to recognize as Hollywood’s dominant narrative mode, do the films then necessitate a “male” perspective? Or do they invite us to identify with Dietrich instead? (As in straight porn: do we, must we, always identify with the man?) And what happens when we see these films not as examples of a unified, auteurist (male) gaze, but collaborative works—the product of a richly personal, aesthetic exchange?
Of course, one’s interpretation of these works often depends on where one stands in the ongoing power struggles between woman and man, director and star, that the films themselves stage at length. In the 1960s, arch-auteurist Andrew Sarris sought to recover “the art of von Sternberg,” which he perceived had been “too often subordinated to the mystique of Marlene Dietrich.” At much the same moment, the director himself—in opulent senescence in his Richard Neutra-designed house in the Valley—was engaged in a similar project: his 1965 grandiloquent, bullshit-rich memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, takes credit for every detail or every frame of his films—from lighting and cinematography, to sewing costumes and designing sets, and even for composing scores and conducting orchestras. None of this is implausible—after dropping out of Jamaica High School, the young immigrant teen Jonas Sternberg learned every conceivable skill of the cinema working at Lewis Selznick’s World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. And his first film, the sui generis, independently financed masterpiece, The Salvation Hunters (1925), displays his particular set of stylistic and thematic preoccupations already in full bloom—or full shadow, as it were.
“An actor is turned on and off like a spigot,” von Sternberg opined, “and like the spigot, is not the source of the liquid that flows through him.” Many auteurist critics have reinforced this notion of the famously riding-crop-wielding director as single author. Gary Giddins’s essay in the new Criterion Collection box set of von Sternberg and Dietrich's films makes the dubious claim that von Sternberg had “carte blanche” with the studios, which was surely untrue. One need only look at Peter Baxter’s excellent book on the Blonde Venus production, Just Watch!, to get a sense of just how complex the question of authorship in the studio system was. It’s hard to imagine what these films would be without the (often-uncredited) work of former UFA set designer Hans Dreier, who worked with von Sternberg on nearly every film from 1928’s The Last Command to The Devil Is a Woman, the de facto end of his A-picture career.
The more productive way to envision these films is as the product of Dietrich-von Sternberg’s hybrid identity. Jack Smith again: “She was V.S. himself. A flaming neurotic… Dietrich was his visual projection—a brilliant transvestite in a world of delirious unreal adventures.” Of course, Smith’s phrasing could suggest a degree of possession and ventriloquism that furthers the mythological Svengali-Trilby relationship that dominates writing on their work together. But there is another sense, one that makes this body of work feel especially contemporary: one that proposes a full elision of the categories of gender.
Much has been made of Marlene Dietrich’s queerness both in and out of these films: her famous tuxedoed performances in Morocco and Blonde Venus, in particular. As Gaylyn Studlar has argued, these films follow an ever-shifting masquerade of feminine and quasi-feminine personas—a naughty milkmaid in Dishonored, a ringleted innocent about to be tainted in The Scarlet Empress—which Dietrich takes up with alternating avidity, ingenuousness, and outright sarcasm. Less discussed but equally important is the fluidity of the masculine figures: Gary Cooper is at his most fey in Morocco, coyly stealing a kiss behind a lady’s fan; John Davis Lodge is the ultimate fur daddy in The Scarlet Empress; and out gay actor Cesar Romero takes the romantic lead in The Devil Is a Woman. These figures are usually balanced by other, much more staid and sulky male figures who, incidentally, often tend to strongly resemble von Sternberg himself. (Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual in The Devil Is a Woman, for example, is a dead ringer.) But the romantic male heroes of these films are those that most avidly follow Dietrich’s example and the wildly transformative potential of her body: as in the dizzying string of metamorphoses she undergoes in Blonde Venus, from sylvan nymph to hausfrau to African gorilla to platinum-afro’d chorus girl to destitute tramp and back.
These films may be exemplars, as Mulvey has it, of a “fetishistic scopohphilia,” but precisely because they are allegories of its processes of exchange, the evolution of the woman’s status as commodity: from possessed to dispossessed to self-possessed. The process of the making and unmaking of identity—via von Sternberg’s dazzling transformations, absurd ellipses, and woozy dissolves and superimpositions—takes these films beyond a hetero-masculinist gaze and into that place where we so often leave Dietrich’s characters: adrift in the desert, by the side of the road, and befogged in legend.