Blu-ray Review: 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, August 9th, 2020  

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Dec 11, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Josef von Sternberg is a name synonymous with cutting-edge cinema and stylishly poignant storytelling, which has echoed throughout the past century as one of the greatest ever examples of the medium. You also might know him for his multiple magnificent collaborations with the indomitable Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, and being one of the filmmakers to codify the film language of Hollywood’s Golden Age, eventually influencing both the French New Wave and New German Cinema. But before his sublime and well-earned fame, he was a rough-and-tumble indie filmmaker who went against the grain in almost every traditional sense, in order to create his own unique brand of visual storytelling. While initially this style wasn’t embraced by the industry and audience in any wide sense, he soon was creating some of the most popular silent classics to grace the screen: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

While von Sternberg’s debut features were a little hit-and-miss with the greater filmmaking world, his breakthrough feature directly launched the American gangster genre as an international craze. Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is a criminal who lives larger than life while chasing all his desires, which often compounds through his jealousy for his partner Feathers (Evelyn Brent). While misunderstanding the relationship between Feathers and his friend Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), an alcoholic former lawyer, Weed incites a rival kingpin to violence. A steep spiral of events soon set Weed and his friends up as targets for the local police. Loyalty, integrity, and toxic friendship are just a few of the thematic motifs of Underworld.

The gangster drama has undergone many sizable shifts in theme and execution over the past century, with many subversive entries such as John Boulting’s Brighton Rock (1948), Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) all going on to be declared classics of not only the genre, but of film as a whole. While these all are phenomenal reappropriations of gangster tropes and themes, they all have frameworks and underlying subtext and context which can directly be harkened back to Underworld and von Sternberg’s initial genius. While the final third of the film goes a bit heavy into the soapboxing, the movie is defined by its stellar light and set design, wonderful and colorful performances by Bancroft, Brent, and Brook, and highly accessible story for any audience despite its expressionist-inspired imagery and editing. Even ninety years later, the film still packs a considerable visual punch, with many techniques we have lauded in the works of Jules Dassin, Martin Scorsese, and John Mackenzie, finding their inception in this very movie.

The Last Command follows an exiled Russian general-turned-Hollywood-extra (Emil Jannings) who snags a role on a film playing a near-carbon copied version of his former self. While undergoing the humiliation the role required of him, his emotional state continues to degrade, forcing him to confront his pride and his fallen status in equal measure. This arc is told in tandem with flashbacks to his previous life overseeing Imperial Russia for the Tsar, and the series of events which brought him to the present day. By the climax, the film has deftly explored the cynical man-eat-man nature of the moviemaking industry, comments on the conditions surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution, and explore von Sterberg’s personal obsessions with visual art - which concludes with an ambiguous cinematic experience where the overall motif has remained elusive and hard to hammer down.

Production on The Last Command started in 1927, when German actor Emil Jannings and producer Erich Pommer were tasked to make movies in Hollywood for Paramount Pictures. As von Sternberg had been encountering significant career trouble after Underworld’s release, due to his demand for creative control, his hiring onto the project was a bit of a godsend. While originally penned by Lajos Bíró and John S. Goodrich, von Sternberg would alter and add so many aspects that it could easily be contested who actually wrote the majority stake of the film. While some have contested that this mesh of ideas and egos caused the film to have an uneven tone and structure, I would say that it is an accurate portrait of a man who is (by his very nature) a contradictory and temperamental individual. The filmic style of von Sterberg manages to encapsulate the main character and his journey so well it borders on the uncomfortable - which speaks highly of the powerful visual architecture of the themes, the strength of the film’s story, and the conviction of the cast and crew to take the audience through the emotional ringer. Though Underworld is clearly the most influential feature included in this release, The Last Command is by far my favorite of the selection - and maybe one of my favorite von Sternberg and Jannings films of all time.

The Docks of New York is about as traditional a story structure as you could get from von Sterberg in this period. Bill Roberts (Bancroft) is a stoker on a steamship, and he’s ashore for one night on leave before shipping out again the next morning. Through massive drinking binges, slapstick fights, and preventing the suicide of the local Mae (Betty Compson), a dance-hall girl wise and jaded beyond her years, Roberts’ night quickly devolves into a quick succession of increasingly grisly events and lowbrow antics. Throughout the story we also confront the desires, misgivings, and conflicts of other crewmen on the ship, exploring how working class life on the metropolis waterfront is full of false promises, broken dreams, and always searching for a momentary escape. It is as harrowing as it is hopeful.

Harold Rosson’s shrouded cinematography, buttressed by the expressionist-inspired set design of Hans Dreier, afford the film an ample stockpile of visual metaphor. These elements elevate Bancroft and Compson’s performances beyond the standard drama and attempted romance plots so that each scene is overflowing with nuance not at all common to the era, finding more at home with method acting (which wouldn’t arrive in America for another few years, and wouldn’t be adapted by film actors in any large way for a subsequent decade). However, that being said, the film still plays out quite expectantly, and the final moments of the movie are pretty by-the-numbers, even for the era. That isn’t to say that the film lacks polish, forethought, or impeccable craft, but it doesn’t match either Underworld or The Last Command in terms of groundbreaking innovation, immersive storytelling, or emotional connectivity.

The Criterion Collection has released these three entries von Sterberg’s catalog in a packaged deal. The high-definition digital restorations of all three movies make them almost as effective as they may have been upon their original release. These Blu-rays are equipped with film scores composed by Robert Israel (for all three), Alloy Orchestra (Underworld and The Last Command), and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (The Docks of New York). While all scores are period-appropriate, the most enduring and effective scores were created by the Alloy Orchestra, adding an extra essense of swagger to the films that doesn’t exist in its other forms, and most likely did not feature in the original scores composed for the films’ initial releases.

Also included are two extraordinarily dry video essays, created by film professor Janet Bergstrom and film scholar Tag Gallagher, respectfully. While full of fascinating information, the style and format of these essays don’t afford much enthusiasm for the subject beyond those who are already-existing von Sternberg stans. A 1968 Swedish television interview with von Sternberg rounds out the discs, concluding with the largest supplemental booklet I have seen included in a Criterion release. This booklet includes essays by critics Geoffrey O’Brien and Luc Sante, as well as scholar Anton Kaes, and additional notes on the scores by the credited composers. The full original screen treatment for Underworld written by Ben Hecht (for which he won one of the first Academy Awards) is finished off with an excerpt from von Sternberg’s 1965 auto­biography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, where he speaks at length on Jannings.

For von Sternberg fans, this release is a definite. For more casual fans of silent cinema, this release is a strong recommendation. However, the high listing price for this collection may turn off some people, especially with the lack of on-disc extra features, uncharacteristic of a typical Criterion release. Though, whether someone looking for new movie experiences from the past, or they’re a fan looking to complete their collection (and if money isn’t too much of an issue), 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is a release worth owning.



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