Capturing Little People With Big Emotions

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

During the next four weekends, the Museum of the Moving Image will unspool 18 of director Josef von Sternberg’s films. The Museum’s retrospective generously showcases the varied results of this great American filmmaker’s self-described “relentless excursion into style.”

Despite being born in Vienna (as Josef Sternberg, in 1894) and having one of Hollywood’s most continental sounding names, Josef von Sternberg was a New Yorker through and through. Even at their most extravagantly decorated, his films remain alive with the kinds of stolen moments and human epiphanies that New Yorkers are exposed to on any given day.

“He had a very broad spectrum of feelings,” the director’s widow, Meri Sternberg, remembers, and as with any gifted artist, that full range of emotion is clearly evident in von Sternberg’s work.From proto-social realist films like his 1925 debut, “The Salvation Hunters,” (9/16) to literary adaptations like “An American Tragedy” (9/24) and “Crime and Punishment” (10/7), to his legendary seven-film collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg remained, in the words of Andrew Sarris, “one of Hollywood’s least condescending chroniclers of little people with big emotions.”


Von Sternberg entered the film business via two venerable New York City institutions — the city park system and sudden bad weather. “He was in Prospect Park one day,” Mrs. Sternberg remembered, “and was caught in an electrical storm.” While waiting out the storm under one of the park’s footbridges, he befriended three other teenage temporary refugees. “It rained for a half an hour or more and so the four of them became quite friendly,”she said, so much so that von Sternberg accompanied the trio back to one young man’s house. When he left he had a job in his new friend’s father’s nascent business.

For the next few years, von Sternberg cleaned film prints in his employer’s residential park-side basement and circulated reels between nickelodeons and theaters all over the city on a bicycle.

Equally as vital to von Sternberg’s future success was his youthful cultural appetite.


“Joe left school to work when he was 16,” Mrs. Sternberg said. “But his family used to complain that he didn’t spend any time at home. He was always in the library.” Von Sternberg’s autobiography, “Fun In a Chinese Laundry,” a compulsively readable compendium of reminisces and musings on film, art, human personality, and seemingly everything that connects them, is a testament to the intensity of his unending self-education.

Von Sternberg’s films bear witness to a lifelong fascination with painting.

“He was at the Armory Show in 1913,” Mrs.Sternberg pointed out.”That was an enormous influence on him and [he] often talked about what he saw there.”The Armory Show’s Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist icons paved the way for the extraordinary and eclectic visual soufflés of light, shadow, layers of foreground texture, background detail, and camera motion that von Sternberg would eventually create in Hollywood and Berlin.


Indeed, it was that fascination with fine art that introduced him to the woman who would become his third wife, bear their two children, and remain with him until his death from heart disease in 1969. An art historian in the employ of the Los Angeles County Museum, young Meri Wilner was sent on a fateful freelance appraisal in the late 1940s. “Hallmark Cards was looking for some paintings to buy,” she remembered. “At that time any big business who wanted to decorate with precious paintings could write off the expense, believe it or not. My future husband had a Gauguin he wanted to sell and I went over to see if it was suitable for Hallmark.”

Within months they were married. Soon, the newlyweds chose to settle in New York, or at least within view of New York.

“Joe had taken me to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and a few other places to see if I would like to live there. Finally we went across the Hudson to Weehawken, New Jersey. When I saw the palisades I was stunned. We took up residence in a house overlooking the Hudson on Kingswood Road in Weehawken. It’s still there.”

In the confusion of intentional and accidental myth that is so much a part of golden age Hollywood, von Sternberg’s visual perfectionism has become intertwined with a reputation for being something of an on-set despot. In his autobiography, Sternberg attributed this exaggeration to the similarity between his own name and that of legendary setbully Erich von Stroheim. Von Sternberg’s 5-foot-5-inch stature (“five-foot-six with shoes on,” Mrs. Sternberg laughed) even intimidated the likes of John Wayne, who confessed to his director on 1957’s “Jet Pilot” (9/30) that he had been “scared to death” of him when he went on an unsuccessful audition for “Blonde Venus” (9/30) in 1932.

But von Sternberg never gave any credence to actors’ anxieties about their treatment at his hands, insisting that, “When the actors played a scene, I inspected not them but myself.”

A man of restless intellect and unending curiosity, von Sternberg measured his work using the yardstick of his own varied experience and obsessive enthusiasm. An aesthete, a craftsman, a storyteller, a showman, and artist, he personified the eclectic anything-goes genesis of the 20th century’s mutant “seventh art” — the motion picture.

Through October 8 (35th Avenue at 36th St., Astoria, Queens, 718-784-0077).

The New York Sun

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