MY FAVORITE VON

Feb 17, 2014

A few words about Josef von Sternberg, who is worthy of attention for a number of reasons, first and foremost the string of insane and insanely beautiful movies he made with Marlene Dietrich between 1930 and 1935.  That these movies got financed at all is still shocking to me, but I thank the cinema gods they did, because the results are unforgettable (the horses charging through the palace in THE SCARLETT EMPRESS? Literally illegal today, and that’s a good thing--it was clearly dangerous to animal and rider alike. But an awesome sequence). Of particular interest to me was the fact he often acted as his own cinematographer, which was so unusual at the time no one even knew to be pissed about it. He also left behind a fascinating autobiography, FUN IN A CHINESE LAUNDRY, which is rich in both anecdote and detail about the process of making films. His ego and intellect often fought to a draw (he was not born with the “von” in his name, for instance), but the amount of time and effort he spent analyzing the craft of directing is a gift to anyone serious about filmmaking. To that end, I’ve cut and pasted my favorites passages below, in case you’re inspired to find the book but can’t. Interesting side note: a documentary about von Sternberg that aired in Great Britain in 1966 used Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra (aka Theme from 2001) as its opening music. What famous, US-born filmmaker was living in the UK at the time, would surely have watched a documentary about a legendary auteur who acted as his own DP, and would use that same piece of music to open the film he was currently shooting…?


“I have always found it less troublesome to conquer myself than to attempt the conquest of others.”  Josef von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry 

“In our work money has often stood in the way of something that might have lasted a little longer than money ever can.”

“And often I recalled Whistler’s words, whenever I was faced with a task which could not have been foreseen by me when first I read them: ‘It takes endless labor to eradicate the traces of labor.’ "

“It is in the nature of our time that all that happens is seen and known everywhere. Ideas that are mediocre are suitable for a medium that must be mediocre if it is to remain popular. Films cannot indulge in a worthy and great purpose, they can only concentrate on what everyone can understand, and make the puniest idea seem large by increasing the size of the screen. One can easily make the screen still larger, but the alteration of its content is not a matter of size.”  

“The scientist is an objective observer, but the guinea pig of the artist is his own self. While the scientist confines himself to facts, the artist merges fact and fancy until one cannot be distinguished from the other. The scientist proceeds with care, the artist jumps to conclusions, though both may arrive at the same place.” 

“…there is no doubt that the audience to which we appeal is a homogeneous herd, united on its lowest level, easily swayed by its most common denominators, and not to be budged against its collective instincts, such as they are. A small audience may vary in intelligence, but if large enough it never does, be it black or white or any shade in between, and no matter where it clusters….despite the fact that a multitude is nothing but a conglomerate of individuals, to know what a given individual does when he is alone does not insure knowing what he does when part of a crowd. A crowd has its on character, and is not an accumulation of various characters, but seems to have been welded into another unit that no longer resembles any of its components.” 

“It is said by many that an audience is the mass is more intelligent than any single individual that has made it his target. It isn’t. It is neither more intelligent nor less so; it is different. A man who thinks he is doing something made to order for an audience is doing nothing of the kind; he merely knows no other way.” 

“As each new concept was exhausted and the circle of my experience became larger, the field I could search for new values diminished, and I was often at a loss to find a new path to follow. If my films have a style that is cohesive, this style is based on a search, not on any conclusion. If some of them seem vague, this could not have been avoided; no search is made unless one is vague. Most of those who work in films seem to be sure of what they are doing, though this is only the sureness of mediocrity. To be precise in any art is to limit its possibilities.”

“All of us depend on others to supply what we cannot supply ourselves, but the actor’s dependence goes beyond the needs of most others. His task is not one to be envied.” 

“Acting is not the memorizing of a text while wearing a disguise, nor the facility to simulate anything at a moment’s notice, but the reconstruction of motives that are the cause of action and words.”

“The more an actor knows about films, the more he realizes his helplessness, the more he therefore will seek to control the selection of story, director, and cameraman, as well as that process of ultimate demolition known as cutting or editing. Not many performers have achieved positions where they may control the factors that chart their careers, and even then this self-manipulation does nothing other than demonstrate their impotence.”

“An actor is chosen for his fitness to externalize an idea of mine, not an idea of his….when an actor thinks he has done nothing, I might be completely satisfied; when he believes that he has given me all there is to bestow, I may reject his offering as a bubble, froth, and piffle, though he is never told this.”

“It is unavoidable at this point to repeat that an actor is rewarded with attention out of all proportion to his responsibility. I do not wish to imply that he is paid too much for his services, as this phase of his reward does not concern me; to delude the masses is always profitable. It is, however, important to point out the absurdity of receiving the profits of speculation in emotions, when neither the emotions nor the speculations are the actor’s.”

“To be correctly and effectively used, sound has to bring to the image a quality other than what the lens included, a quality out of range of the image. Sound had to counterpoint or compensate the image, add to it—not subtract from it. As I have said before, the camera had developed a viewpoint: it could be moved, it could look down on its subject, aim up to capture it, bring it close or push it away, it could reveal or conceal at will, impose a tempo, and add a thousand variables in its endless and unlimited play with light and darkness. Sound became a blatant addition, a saccharine, charmless frosting unless it were to be as pliable as the image. Sound was realistic, the camera was not.”

The Scarlett Empress, the penultimate film, deserved to be a success by any standard then existing or now prevalent, but with few exceptions it was greeted as an attempt to assassinate a superb actress. The film was, of course, a relentless excursion into style, which, taken for granted in any work of art, is considered to be unpardonable in this medium.”

“The function of a director is not to maneuver values which others have already established but to create those values, to choose them, to control all elements, particularly those which deal with content and the performers who must be made to interpret the content.”

“There have been improvements in presentation, to be sure, but more often than not they have died with the improver….there have been numerous attempts to substitute novelty for substance.” 

“Time has produced a hash and a ragout, not a change of subject matter; the advance, if any, has been in technique.”

“In most other fields an artist’s work evolves at leisure and under little pressure other than his own drive. This is not so when making a film. Pressures, problems, and barricades arise that do not confront the creator working in any other medium.

          To obtain funds, a manuscript must be submitted. This basis for a future film is a deceptive document. The motion picture has a vocabulary of its own, which does not resemble the words of paper. Words cannot describe an image, particularly when it is in motion, and no two human beings can visualize an idea in an identical or even a similar manner. This results in endless debates and alterations which vitiate every idea that may have originally had merit. It seems that no two people can agree about the value of an idea in advance, unless it is so worthless that all agree that it is good.”

“A conference about abstract values is the ultimate in absurdity. The creation of a story, a film, a painting, poem, sculpture, or any other individual and unique accomplishment is not a subject for discussion. It is not a mathematical theory or a disease. To ask for advice is one thing; to be compelled to submit to it is another.

          To repeat, progress in artistic standards can never be made by an audience or by those who elect to speak in its name.” 

“Once in a while audiences become bored by the endless repetition of piffle, and if the challenger than takes advantage of this short intermission and is lavish with sugar pills he might escape too great a penalty.”

“Every light has a point where it is brightest and a point toward which it wanders to lose itself completely. It must be intercepted to fulfill its mission; it cannot function in a void. Light can go straight, penetrate and turn back, be reflected and deflected, gathered and spread, bent as by a soap bubble, made to sparkle and be blocked. Where it is no more is blackness, and where it begins is the core of its brightness. The journey of rays from that central core to the outposts of blackness is the adventure and drama of light.” 

“Lights can be friendly with each other or antagonize each other, or, what is worse, duplicate each other’s function, and then the rays are no longer bearers of beauty, but foster confusion. Learn to photograph by beginning with one light; if that one light is mastered, all other lights are mastered as well.”

“The director and the photographer must be one and indivisible; the camera is one of his tools, perhaps his most important one.”

“There is no short cut to photographic skill; to master it requires not only theory but intensive practice. Lens, light, material, subject, composition, angle, and the pattern of movement provide a thousand and one pitfalls for the unwary.”

“Monstrously enlarged as it is on the screen, the human face should be treated like a landscape.”

“But above all, the greatest art in motion picture photography is to be able to give life to the dead space that exists between the lens and the subject before it. Smoke, rain, fog, dust, and steam can emotionalize empty space, and so can the movement of the camera. The camera can advance and retreat and encircle with or against the action it encounters. It can produce a fluid composition, related to the sum total of all its shifting images and make every movement part of the entire conception.”

“There are some things which cannot be learned, though they can be studied. Among them are the laws of art—and the lawlessness of it, as well.”

“The field of art is vast, as vast as the realm of thought and emotion, and it does not necessarily embrace noble and uplifting functions. It covers, like the skin in which our doctor specializes, a multitude of sins. It is not always creative, and very often serves only as an excuse for idling to those who dodge every form of responsibility. At its best it is a record of man’s cultural achievements even when all other evidence of a culture has vanished; at its worst it is a tawdry stimulant to a spurious ecstasy. It can be employed to debase all values, or it can serve to remind man that he is no longer a savage. It is not a science, and no one can prove it to be accurate or absolute. It certainly is not confined to any subject matter, and no scale, calibration, or test tube can aid in its analysis.”

“We will leave the painter at his easel, the sculptor in his studio, the composer at his piano, and the writer at his desk, to enter a strange workshop where another member of the brotherhood of artists may have elected to work.

          This is not a quiet attic entered after a soft knock on the door. No lone figure is here hunched over his creation. Instead, this is a cluttered, ever-shifting space torn apart by turmoil and confusion. The place swarms with human beings, and unless he were to be pointed out it would be difficult to locate the one man who must remain superior to this scrambling. A jungle of rigging, appliances, and complicated devices, heavy paraphernalia and machinery obstructs the view, and everything seems to be constantly shifted from side to side and up and down…to observe this chaos long enough is to cause speculation as to how anything orderly can be extricated from this jumble of machinery and human beings.” 

“Selecting, influencing, inspiring, or providing his own manuscript (whenever this is not inflicted upon him), exhausted by necessary and secret labor, every move questioned, trying to preserve an inner vision over a period of months, forced by the nature of his material to adopt, change, and balance constantly shifting values (shift as they must, taking so much time to imprison), unavoidably antagonizing friends and compelled to befriend enemies, the film director, extremely noticeable while at work though invisible when the work is done, is not an enviable figure….his every step can be as encumbered as if he were actually wading through a swamp. Behind every light crouches a human being; behind the camera many of them; tape measures, numbering slates, and a miscellany of contraptions intercept his sight; and whenever he moves he must dodge a swinging boom with wheels and pulleys that guides the microphone. Stumbling and twisting between assistants, mechanics, property men, make-up men and women, male and female wardrobe attendants, hairdressers, doubles who stand in for actors who think it beneath their dignity to aid in the adjustment of lights; maids, valets, chauffeurs, platform grips, nurses, painters, union representatives, agents, script clerks, and others who seem to have been especially provided to obstruct his view; before him the inert mass of actors, skilled and unskilled, veteran and recruit, star and extra, who must be charged so that the human element in this inhuman task sustains its pitch; lurking behind him idlers, visitors and members of the international press who pounce on any item that furnished fuel for a garrulous pen, the director pursues the even tenor of his work—if he can find access to it.”