Josef von Sternberg

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Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg.jpg
Born Jonas Sternberg
(1894-05-29)May 29, 1894
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died December 22, 1969(1969-12-22) (aged 75)
Hollywood, California
Spouse(s) Riza Royce (1926-1930; divorced)
Jean Annette McBride (1945-1947; divorced)
Meri Otis Wilner (1948-1969; his death; 1 child)
Parents Moses (Morris) Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg (29 May 1894 – 22 December 1969) was an Austrian-American film director.

After working with the award-winning German star Emil Jannings, he was invited to Berlin in 1930 to make one of Europe's first talkies, Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) with Jannings and an unknown revue-artist Marlene Dietrich. His flattering soft-focus technique helped to create the Dietrich legend in the six films they made together in Hollywood.



Von Sternberg was born Jonas Sternberg to a Jewish family in Vienna. When he was two years old his father moved to the United States. He followed, with the remainder of his immediate family, at the age of seven. They returned to Vienna three years later, before finally returning to America after Sternberg had turned fourteen. His father, Moses (Morris) Sternberg, a former soldier in the army of Austria-Hungary, twice tried to make a home for the family in the US before finding employment as a lace worker. (The false aristocratic title 'von' was added in 1925 by actor/co-producer Elliott Dexter during the production of By Divine Right, supposedly to "even up" the credits as they appeared on screen. Sternberg did not protest, since it invited comparison with his hero, Erich von Stroheim.[citation needed])

Early career[edit]

Von Sternberg dropped out of Jamaica High School and worked as an errand boy in a lace warehouse. He later obtained a job cleaning and repairing movie prints, and by about 1915 found himself working for William A. Brady at the World Film Company at Fort Lee, New Jersey, mentored by Emile Chautard and other French-speaking directors and cinematographers at World. Chautard hired him as assistant director in 1919 for a version of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and Sternberg made his directorial debut in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, called by some the first American independent film.[who?]

Charlie Chaplin was impressed by The Salvation Hunters, and encouraged Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to acquire the rights to it. Pickford also asked Sternberg to direct a film with her as star, but rejected his first scenario. Chaplin also commissioned him to write and direct A Woman of the Sea (also known as The Sea Gull), starring his former star and lover Edna Purviance, but this film was later destroyed by Chaplin. Still photographs from A Woman of the Sea were published by Purviance's family in 2008.

Von Sternberg had commercial success later in the decade at Paramount Pictures with the late-period silent films The Last Command and The Docks of New York (1928), both noted for their influential cinematography. His reputation was also advanced by a series of early gangster films including Underworld and Thunderbolt.


Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express
In this famous publicity still, Sternberg used butterfly lighting to enhance Dietrich's features.[1]
(Paramount 1932, photo by Don English)

Von Sternberg's career suffered a decline after Thunderbolt and he accepted an invitation to make a film in Germany. In 1929, Sternberg worked in Berlin and directed the widely acclaimed film Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel; 1930) in both German and English versions simultaneously, one of the first German-language talkies (Melodie des Herzens was released in 1929). It was Sternberg's second film with the German actor Emil Jannings as the doomed Professor Rath. (The first was The Last Command.)

Von Sternberg also cast the then little known Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola, the female lead, and made her an international star overnight. Sternberg and Dietrich continued to collaborate in the United States on Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). The Scarlet Empress is particularly celebrated for its atmospheric and suggestively demonic production design.

In 1932, von Sternberg commissioned architect Richard Neutra to design the 'Von Sternberg House', an avant-garde American modernist residence. It was later occupied by Ayn Rand and eventually demolished in 1972.

Von Sternberg is one of the directors to whom has been attributed the origin of the expression "MOS", a phrase used when a scene is to be filmed without sound.[citation needed]

For Von Sternberg, stars as Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth and Dolores del Rio, defined his concept of glamour in Hollywood.[2]

Later career[edit]

Macao (1952) was von Sternberg's last Hollywood film. Anatahan (1953), made in Japan, is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers who refused to believe that the Second World War had ended. The film, which was directed, photographed, narrated, and written by von Sternberg, saw limited release and was a financial failure. It was also Sternberg's final film; although another Hollywood picture he co-directed (Jet Pilot) was released in 1957, it had actually been shot seven years earlier, when he was still under contract to producer Howard Hughes.[3]

Between 1959 and 1963 von Sternberg taught a course on film aesthetics at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on his own films. His students included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who went on to form the rock group The Doors. References to Sternberg films appear in some songs by the group, and Manzarek describes Sternberg as "perhaps the greatest single influence on The Doors."[4]

Von Sternberg died from a heart attack in 1969 at age 75. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California near several film studios. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, von Sternberg's autobiography, which took its title from an early film comedy, was published in 1965.


Silent films[edit]

Sound films[edit]


Other projects[edit]


  • Sternberg, Josef von: Fun in a Chinese Laundry. London: Secker and Warburg, 1965.


  1. ^ "Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express by Don English (Paramount, 1932)". Auction Results Archives. Heritage Capital Corporation. Retrieved 5 January 2013. "With direction and lighting by genius Josef von Sternberg, photographer Don English took what would become the most iconic image of Marlene Dietrich." 
  2. ^ Buena suerte viviendo: Dolores del Río
  3. ^ The Saga of Anatahan (1953): Joseph von Sternberg
  4. ^ The Doors by the Doors and Ben-Fong Torres


  • Baxter, John: The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg. London: A. Zwemmer / New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971.
  • Baxter, John: Von Sternberg. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
  • Baxter, Peter: Just Watch!: Sternberg, Paramount and America. London: British Film Institute, 1993.
  • Baxter, Peter (ed.): Sternberg. London: British Film Institute, 1980.
  • Sarris, Andrew: The Films of Josef von Sternberg. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
  • Studlar, Gaylyn: In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  • Weinberg, Herman G.: Josef von Sternberg. A Critical Study. New York: Dutton, 1967.

External links[edit]