In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Josef Von Sternberg

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies and Autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Journal Articles
  • Silent Era Films
  • The Sound Era and Post-Paramount Years
  • Film Style and Narrative
  • Censorship
  • Costuming
  • Feminist Approaches to Gender and Sexuality
  • Critical Reputation and Influence

Cinema and Media Studies Josef Von Sternberg
Gaylyn Studlar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0007


Born in Vienna, Austria in 1894 of working-class Jewish parents, Jonas Stern’s downtrodden young life did not hold the slightest indication that, as Josef von Sternberg, he would become one of the greatest visual stylists in the history of Hollywood filmmaking. His family settled permanently in the United States in 1908. After he finished school, he worked repairing film sprockets. During World War I, he enlisted in the Signal Corps to make training films, an experience that helped him get a minor foothold in the East Coast movie industry after the war. He flirted with building a career in Europe, but returned to the United States and moved to Hollywood. His first feature was The Salvation Hunters (1925), shot outdoors near the port of San Pedro and independently financed. It drew the attention of Charles Chaplin, who became the producer of von Sternberg’s next film, The Sea Gull, which ended in disaster—destroyed as a tax write-off. He was asked by Paramount to finish Children of Divorce (1927) when its director quit, which he did, marking his first work with this studio. He is credited with creating the first modern gangster film with his next assignment, Underworld (1927). Other important films followed at Paramount, but the thing that von Sternberg is best remembered for and, indeed, which was emphasized in his obituaries in 1969, was that he “discovered” Marlene Dietrich and cast her in The Blue Angel (1930), a Paramount/Ufa coproduction shot in Germany. Their six subsequent films together at Paramount in the early 1930s were not always popular or critically praised, but their visual beauty was indisputable, and they shaped the image of Dietrich as a star persona. Fired from Paramount in 1935 as a director because his difficult personality made him as unpopular with actors and technical talent as his films had become with audiences, von Sternberg was forced to go from studio to studio, and ultimately from country to country, to find work, until there was none for him. Yet, even at the time when he was regarded as a “has-been” by Hollywood, appreciation for his talents was nursed by experimental filmmakers and surrealists who praised him as a film stylist capable of creating stunning cinematic worlds with no equivalent in reality. In the 1960s he was elevated by a generation of auteur critics who regarded him as an exemplar of a filmmaker who imprints his work with his personality. In the 1970s, interest by scholars like Robin Wood and Laura Mulvey sparked a reconsideration of the erotic and ideological complexity of von Sternberg’s films, especially those starring Dietrich. Subsequently, writers focusing on cultural history and film theory have reframed the director’s films within considerations of gender, nation, race, and class, even as interest in narrative complexity, performance, and visual style is asserted in critical discourse.

Reference Works

The section on “Josef von Sternberg” in Cahiers du cinema from 1965 demonstrates the longstanding interest of French critics in the director. Also tracing the director’s film work is Baxter 1971, with Baxter 2010 providing more detail regarding the shape of the career as well as the roles of those who worked with von Sternberg. Baxter 1993 offers a detailed analysis of the director’s career at Paramount and its historical contexts. Sarris 1966 is an important auteurist consideration of the director’s films, and Studlar 1988 is an influential feminist-psychoanalytic account of the Paramount films with Dietrich that reflects theoretical trends in the 1980s. Various authors working from different academic methodologies explore von Sternberg’s famous collaborations with Dietrich in Germünden Desjardins 2007. Keating 2010 places the director’s famous visual style within the framework of the historical development of Hollywood studio approaches to cinematography.

  • Baxter, John. The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg. London: Zwemmer, 1971.

    Baxter traces the director’s career and attributes its trajectory, in no small measure, to von Sternberg’s extremely difficult personality. A useful short introduction to von Sternberg’s films that discusses the varying circumstances of production.

  • Baxter, Peter. Just Watch! Sternberg, Paramount and America. London: British Film Institute, 1993.

    In addition to offering close textual analysis, Baxter places von Sternberg’s films at Paramount within the broader contexts of the director’s other films, the Hollywood studio system, and US history and culture.

  • Baxter, John. Von Sternberg. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813126012.001.0001

    A biography of von Sternberg focused on his professional career, with significant analysis and historical detail based on over four decades of research, interviews, and study of the Hollywood studio system. Includes bibliography and filmography.

  • Germünden, Gerd, and Mary Desjardins, eds. Dietrich Icon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    Von Sternberg’s film collaborations with Dietrich and the resulting impact on her career and carefully cultivated star persona take center stage in many of the articles included in this broad-ranging and beautifully designed anthology.

  • “Josef von Sternberg.” Cahiers du cinema 168 (July 1965): 14–49.

    A selection of articles focused on the director as a critically controversial genius, including a contemporary interview, a filmography, and reassessments by Serge Daney, Jean-Louis Noames, and Claude Ollier.

  • Keating, Patrick. Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    Grounded by research into the professional discourse that disseminated knowledge about techniques and equipment, Keating traces the emergence of different cinematographic styles in the Hollywood studio system, including that associated with Lee Garmes’s work for von Sternberg’s films.

  • Sarris, Andrew. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

    Sarris regards von Sternberg’s cinema as exemplary of the art of an auteur who writes “with the camera” (p. 195). This remains one of the most sensitive readings of these highly stylized films. Annotated filmography.

  • Studlar, Gaylyn. In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg: Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

    Based on object relations theory, semiotics, and Deleuze’s reading of the novels of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Studlar argues for the presence of a masochistic aesthetic in the six Von Sternberg–Dietrich films made at Paramount.

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