3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg: Criterion Collection
August 20, 2010
Vienna-born, New York-raised Josef von Sternberg began his filmmaking career in the silent era and the folks at the Criterion Collection have unearthed three long-unavailable classics: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928). These films demonstrate Von Sternberg’s emerging style while also featuring impressive black and white cinematography.
Underworld is about Chicago gangsters and was written by Ben Hecht with all the iconography we associate with the gangster film: crime, guns, fast cars, urban environment, warring gangs, tough guy speak, and so on. It is now considered by many to be the prototypical gangster film. Much to his dismay, Von Sternberg replaced Hecht’s gritty, hard-boiled take on the subject matter with a more romantic vibe. However, this turned out to be a big hit with movie-going audiences of the day.
The film begins with a fantastic opening scrawl that sets the tone immediately: “A great city. In the dead of night….streets lonely, moon-flooded….buildings empty as the cliff-dwellings of a forgotten age.” A bank explodes and gangster Bull Weed (Bancroft) makes a daring escape. In the process, he kidnaps a bum named Rolls Royce (Brook) who witnessed the crime and subsequent escape. Once Bull is convinced that Rolls won’t rat him out, he puts the bum to work. However, Rolls incurs the wrath of a rival gangster when he refuses to give into his bullying. Bull only makes things worse and a confrontation is inevitable.
The Last Command is often seen as a star vehicle for Swiss-born actor Emil Jannings who made seven films during his two-and-a-half year stint in Hollywood. The only one that survives to this day is the film he made with Von Sternberg. Jannings was a veteran of 50 German films while this was Von Sternberg’s second major feature.
The Last Command explores Von Sternberg’s fascination with acting – the ability of an actor to emote and immerse themselves in a role. The film takes place on a Hollywood movie set as the director (Powell) attempts to make a film about the Russian Revolution. Added into the mix is a deposed czarist general (Jannings) now portraying a version of his former self on camera. Is it any wonder that he loses the plot both figuratively and literally?
Von Sternberg delights in sending up the sycophants that buzz around powerful people like the director. We also see Jannings’ czar struggling against the numerous extras clamouring to get their shot in show business. He has fallen from the lofty heights of aristocracy to the anonymity of a Hollywood extra – a vicious dog-eat-dog world.
Along with several other key silent films from that era (chief among them Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. and King Vidor’s The Crowd), Von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is seen as the end of the silent era and also the height of its powers. While it may be the least successful of his surviving silent films, it has been said to be his most personal.
The film concerns an unlikely romance between a stoker (Bancroft) that rescues a girl (Compson) who attempts suicide by drowning. They get married but his boss tries to make a move on the girl which only complicates matters. The film opens with an incredible shot of the New York City skyline during the late 1920s and we get to see it in a way that no longer exists. We are then introduced to the stoker and his co-workers toiling away in a hot, smoky furnace room on a ship. It’s tough, dirty work and the man understandably relish shore leave.
Von Sternberg depicts a world populated by busy bars filled with tough-talking men and women and fog-enshrouded docks, anticipating the shadowy underworld look of film noir. People work hard in The Docks of New York just to eke out an existence.
The Underworld disc has a 35-minute visual essay entitled, “Underworld: How It Came to Be” that takes a look at the making of the film. We see how Von Sternberg got into the movie business and worked his way up to director.
The Last Command disc also includes a 35-minute visual essay entitled, “Von Sternberg Till ‘29” which analyzes his silent films. We see how he emotionalized the landscapes in his films through a series of clips and stills.
The Docks of New York disc features an interview with Von Sternberg for Swedish television. He talks about his career and in particular, his silent films. He cites literature and knowledge of painting as influences on his own work.