Outtakes: Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg  

WHO is he?

Hollywood film director, scenarist and cinematographer who directed close to two dozen feature films between the mid-twenties and the mid-fifties. Sternberg was notorious for being a control freak, seeking to manage every aspect of his films, from script to editing, from décor and costumes to actors’ speech and body language, from lighting to musical score.

WHAT are his films about?


Sternberg’s films rejected a number of narrative conventions that was expected of studio productions. A number of these films had a downbeat or ambiguous ending, in which the male and female leads do not exactly end up together. Though these films regularly embrace the woman-as-creator, woman-as-destroyer stereotype, the lead women of these films are also full-blooded individuals in full control of their desires and destinies. Narratives set in foreign countries, weaker male characters and themes of unrequited love and loneliness are some of the characteristics of Sternberg’s films.


Sternberg is now widely celebrated for his unmistakable visual style and the complex texture he brought to the images of his films. By his own admission, he was influenced by painting, and his compositions, with their sense of balance and depth of detail, testify that. Like Yasujiro Ozu, Sternberg put to use all three planes of the photographic image. Most notably, the chiaroscuro lighting scheme he employed for his muse and leading lady in seven movies, Marlene Dietrich, created an aura of ethereality around her which has persisted till date.

WHY is he of interest?

While most of the cinematic innovations during the silent era originated from European productions, especially Russia and Germany, Sternberg, along with King Vidor, made films that were charting new territories. Sternberg, for better or for worse, is also a kind of prototype for the now-too-revered authoritative filmmaker figure, who prefers to leave his fingerprints on every facet of his film.

WHERE to discover him?

The Last Command (1928) stars Emil Jannings as a haughty Russian general who manages to escape to America after the October Revolution and ends up as a Hollywood extra. Sternberg’s film is a grand portrayal of the cruel blows that the hand of fate deals and a profound statement about the conquest of history by cinema, in which history is replaced by the winners’ narrative and the role of the commander by that of the film director.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 4:05:20 PM |

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