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Silent von Sternberg

Criterion’s new box set of three silent films by Josef von Sternberg — “Underworld” (1927), “The Last Command” (1928) and “The Docks of New York” (1928) — is self-evidently one of the most important releases of the year, with magnificent renderings of three important films culminating in the transcendent masterpiece that is “Docks.” The print quality of the latter is breathtaking — it has certainly never looked better on home video, and probably hasn’t looked this good since it opened theatrically in its full nitrate glory. The only conceivable complaint: why weren’t these released in Blu-ray? My hopelessly inadequate attempt to evoke their sublimity is here, on the New York Times website.

53 comments to Silent von Sternberg

  • Alex Hicks

    What a great experince viewing “Docks,” which doesn’t much fit Studlar’s mind-blown masochist interpretation of von Strernberg films (though Mae sure receives some hard knocks). Have to see “Last Command” and “Underworld” in reissues as glorious, I hope, as that of “Docks.” Have to hope for a quality new release of “The Salvation Hunters.”

    My mind blown, I find myself wondering if sound films weren’t a regress.

    A ten greatest list from my present(perhaps deranged, perhaps temporary) deranged state:

    “True Heart Sussie”
    “Battleship Potempkin”
    “The Merry Widow” (von Stroheim)
    “Seven Chances”
    “City Lights”
    “The Crowd”

  • Rick K.

    As others have pointed out, these three Sternberg silents have been something of a holy grail for DVD collectors, particularly coming from Criterion, who were sure to treat the films right (saying that in spite of their somewhat disappointing SCARLET EMPRESS, hopefully now a high priority for remastering … hopefully too, since the rights are held by Universal, not Paramount, clearing permission for blu-ray should not be so problematic). As the most anticipated DVD release this year for many, it was, for me, the slowest arriving in the mail, but now that its home, I’ve been savoring the contents.

    There’s not much more I can add to the accolades already posted, but what didn’t occur to me previously is how PERFECTLY these three films serve the box set format … each one, of course, a singular masterpiece from a “pantheon” auteur … but how well they represent a definitive, “complete” evolution of a cinema artist. UNDERWORLD, while not Sternberg’s first film, was his first within the Hollywood system, a beautifully realized work, among the great ENDURING silent films which even jaded contemporary viewers (ie. cynical film students) can view with total admiration, a near-perfect integration of engaging storytelling and stylized technique (its watershed status among crime/gangster films may be exaggerated, yet certainly significant for kickstarting a trend via its success). What happens in the next two films, fleshes out the three steps of Sternberg to a visionary artist of the most extraordinary depth and precision, moving far beyond the standards of contemporaries in terms of forming a cinematic language uniquely his own. This, coming at a time when visual storytelling via the silent film had reached its peak, Sternberg may very well have been its supreme artist.

    COMMAND is, for me, the most compelling of the three (what with its Hollywood-on-Hollywood concept and the ever-fascinating Russian revolutionary backdrop at its core) serving Sternberg as an oasis for his moulding of studio sets and use of exceptional actors (Jannings, Brent … and there will NEVER be another William Powell!) boasting performances which transcend silent technique, far in advance of their time (thinking only of Louise Brooks and a handful of others). To this Sternberg adds his layers of stylization … no wonder he decided to take (unsubstantiated) full credit for the scenario, that being a fascinating anecdote for historians which also conveys how MUCH his direction totally DEFINED the final product (the very essence of auteurism). In DOCKS, the scenario seems virtually non-existent and what we get is directorial abstraction … which, through sheer force of visual intensity, emerges as one of the most compelling films of its time. That it was not totally understood in 1928, is also an anticipation of the “industry compromises” he would encounter while emphasizing his “stubborn” stylistic integrity during the first decade of sound on the horizon. What a magnificent set!

  • On the subject of Josef von Sternberg. I just got the program guide, 180°, for the new TIFF Bell Lightbox (btw, the building by Kuwabara looks really cool) and it looks like a von Sternberg film is going to be popping up there. Unfortunately not in their Essential cinema series – whose depth and breath is otherwise far-reaching – but in a special installation by Guy Maddin that is entitled “Hauntings I” and “Hauntings II”. From reading an article about the exhibition it is described as a “spectral recreations of films lost or never made” and includes scenes from unrealized and lost films like von Sterberg’s “Woman of the Sea”, Fritz Lang’s “Lilith and Ly” and Mizoguchi’s “Out of college”. Like the fatality in “The Heart of the World” and the narrative and aesthetic themes of a disappointment with the industrial present alongside a yearning for the past (i.e. “My Winnipeg”), Guy Maddin mentions, there will be a new fragment where he filmed an enchanting woman who throws herself at Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi’s tombstones that are apparently side-by-side of each others at a cemetery. It is interesting to see how these “lost” films are preserved and are provided to the public. There is the book of inter-titles and images from von Sternberg’s “The Case of Lena Smith”, on the criterion collection DVD of Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” on the special features you can watch a photo-montage of “Bezhin Meadow” and there has been retroactive changes on films like “Greed” and “Touch of Evil”. These presentations allow for a better understanding of the intentions and the work of what these great directors at one time wanted to create. Oh! I just remembered, If anyone is at all interested and in the Toronto area on Oct. 12th Isabella Rossellini will be presenting at TIFF “Voyage in Italy”, and her directional collaboration with Maddin “My Dad is 100 years old” and also “Green Porno” and “Blue Velvet”. October really seems like it will be an epic month for movies in Toronto as I have also noticed that Jonathan Rosenbaum will be at York University on the 6th to discuss his new book “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia” and that John Waters will be at TIFF on the 23rd to introduce Pasolini’s “Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom”.