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April 16 - April 19

Sternberg Before Dietrich

For many years Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) was known primarily as the director of extraordinary and iconic star vehicles for Marlene Dietrich, beginning in Germany with The Blue Angel (1930) and continuing at Paramount through the mid-1930s. Despite their sumptuous and daring stylistic achievements, Sternberg’s seven-film collaboration with Dietrich was simply the extension of a remarkably expansive and innovative exploration of cinematic style begun earlier and refined in his still underappreciated silent films. In these astonishingly accomplished features, his innate talent for innovative, expressive lighting and poetically charged mise-en-scene was made immediately apparent. Vividly legible in the silent films as well are rich expressions of the quintessentially Sternbergian themes of dark fatalism, inexorable decline, moral corruption and the bewitching thrall of doomed love. Sternberg’s silent films remained little seen for far too long, with several key titles lost and others available solely in inferior prints, until the work of intrepid scholars and archivists such as the talented film historian Janet Bergstrom and Austrian Film Museum Director Alexander Horwath. Guided by the work of Bergstrom, Horwath and other dedicated scholars - and especially the important recent restoration by UCLA of Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters and the rediscovery of a fragment from the lost The Case of Lena Smith - we finally have a fuller understanding of Sternberg’s early formation as one of Hollywood’s most complex artists.  

Born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna to an impoverished family of Orthodox Jews, Sternberg divided his childhood between Austria and the United States. Among the many jobs that proceeded his film career was his work as a lace salesman, an experience that Sternberg would later credit as formative to the play of light that animates his best films, not to mention his repeated use of gossamer fabric as visual and narrative texture, as the source of ceaseless shadow patterns and an organic flow of veiling and unveiling.  

After gaining the notice of studio executives with the surprise success of his independently produced debut feature, The Salvation Hunters, Sternberg quickly earned a place for himself in Hollywood, working his way from assistant to director and accepting the “von” given to him by a producer. In 1927 Sternberg began a long and fruitful relationship with Paramount that led to such classics as The Last Command and The Docks of New York and eventually to the celebrated Dietrich cycle. Throughout his career Sternberg repeatedly portrayed himself as a cinematic poet, an artist who uses the image as a poet uses language, defamiliarizing habitual meaning through an emphasis upon mood, tone and connotation. Certainly in the marvelous silent films showcased in this selective retrospective Sternberg sets aside traditional concerns for classical narrative and psychological realism in favor of immersive mood and entrancing spectacle.

Special thanks: Glenn KnicKrehm, ConstellationCenter for Performing and Cinematic Arts; Eric Rentschler; UCLA Film and Television Archive; The Austrian Film Museum.


Introduction by Scholar Janet Bergstrom
Live Piano Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Special Event Tickets $12

Friday April 16 at 7pm

The Salvation Hunters

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With George K. Arthur, Georgia Hale, Bruce Guerin
US 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 72 min.

Sternberg’s incredible feature debut was among the earliest truly independent American productions, made for a pittance outside the studio system and using San Pedro locations to remarkable effect. The Salvation Hunters’ stunning visuals and heartfelt story of love and loneliness caught the eyes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, who distributed the film through their company, the fledgling United Artists. Sternberg spun the necessity of a low budget into a virtue: the film faithfully captures the grit of the “lower depths” milieu in its story of an impoverished young woman striving to make a better life with her naive boyfriend, despite being surrounded by men who would exploit her. The film reveals Sternberg, under the influence of Stroheim, rejecting the sentimental melodrama of D.W. Griffith in favor of an almost raw naturalism, fascinated with corruption and abasement while also exploring the poetically charged and evocatively contrasting mise-en-scene.

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Live Piano Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Special Event Tickets $12
Double Feature Admission with Underworld for HFA Members

Saturday April 17 at 7pm

The Docks of New York

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 76 min.

Sternberg returns to the milieu of poverty and degradation explored in The Salvation Hunters with this tale of a weary dancehall girl hopelessly in love with a brusque stoker. Moving away from the poetic realism of the earlier film, Sternberg’s silent masterpiece offers an operatically dramatic and even glamorous depiction of squalor. Overshadowed in its original release by The Jazz Singer, The Docks of New York contains some of the most exquisite black-and-white cinematography ever filmed, with Sternberg’s virtuosic mobile camera adding rare subtlety to gesture and performance. While the film’s characters are ultimately more archetypes than individuals, they nevertheless reveal themselves most intensely through shadowed nuance rather than through broad caricature.

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Live Piano Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Special Event Tickets $12
Double Feature Admission with The Docks of New York for HFA Members

Saturday April 17 at 9pm

Underworld

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook
US 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 97 min.

Although he would later disparage Underworld, the great success of Sternberg’s first solo project at Paramount made him one of the studio’s most important directors and helped launch the gangster genre. Working for the first time at a major Hollywood studio, Sternberg exploited his mastery at visual texture, conjuring extravagant effects of light and shadow, translucence and opacity, while casting a lustrous and loaded halo around Feathers, the moll who is the lynchpin in a cruel love triangle with George Bancroft’s mobster heavy and an alcoholic former lawyer. Sternberg’s characteristic emphasis on decadent milieu and forceful emotion at the expense of narrative frustrated crime reporter-turned-scenarist Ben Hecht, who tried to remove his name from the credits.

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Live Piano Accompaniment by Rob Humphreville
Special Event Tickets $12

Sunday April 18 at 7pm

The Last Command

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 96 min.

Sternberg’s fascination with tales of mortification and disgrace made him a natural choice to direct celebrated German actor Emil Jannings, whose most famous roles, such as the humiliated doorman in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), captured the anguished fall from grace and respectability of vain men too attached to their social position. Set in Hollywood, The Last Command offers a powerful allegory about celebrity, history and cinema with Jannings delivering a brilliant performance as an exiled Russian military officer turned actor and given the role of a Czarist general caught in his last desperate downward spiral. The Last Command reaches a fever pitch of psychosexual degradation that is carefully balanced by the film’s cruelly sumptuous elegance. Jannings was so pleased with the result that he recommended Sternberg for the job of directing The Blue Angel.

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We regret that Alexander Horwath will not be able to join us
Regular Admission Price
Monday April 19 at 7pm

Fragment from The Case of Lena Smith

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With Esther Ralston, James Hall
US 1929, 35mm, b/w, 5 min.
Preserved by the Theatre Museum of Waseda University, Tokyo
Print courtesy The Austrian Film Museum, Vienna

Among the many missing films from the 1920s, The Case of Lena Smith looms as one of the most regrettable. Rumored to be most striking of Sternberg’s silent films, The Case of Lena Smith was a tender melodrama that returned to the fin-de-siècle Vienna of his childhood, the same setting that similarly captivated Max Ophuls. The plot concerns the relationship between a young woman and a dissolute soldier, to whom she bears a child and to whose father she ends up in servitude. The recently discovered five-minute sequence from the film, a trip by the film’s lovers to Vienna’s fabled Prater amusement park, will be presented by the renowned archivist, scholar, programmer and film historian Alexander Horwath.

Thunderbolt

Directed by Joseph von Sternberg.
With George Bancroft, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen
US 1929, 35mm, b/w, 92 min.

Sternberg’s second gangster picture again stars George Bancroft as a larger than life mobster, now caught in a fatal love triangle. In his first sound film, Sternberg, like other talented silent filmmakers such as Lang and Hitchcock, was quick to exploit the new technology’s unique expressive dimensions - to evoke off-screen action, for example, and maintain a careful “contrapuntal” soundtrack. Thunderbolt also makes masterful use of music performed onscreen, leading Andrew Sarris to call the film “as much a musical as a melodrama.”

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