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Josef von Sternberg, the Man Who Made Dietrich (1994)

 -  Documentary | Short
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Title: Josef von Sternberg, the Man Who Made Dietrich (1994)

Josef von Sternberg, the Man Who Made Dietrich (1994) on IMDb 7.7/10

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Credited cast:
Kevin Brownlow
Allen Daviau
Curtis Harrington
Maria Riva
Nicholas Josef von Sternberg ...
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LATE SHOW: Josef Von Sternberg – The Man Who Made Dietrich (David Thompson, 1994; TV) ***
20 May 2011 | by (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

THE MOVIES: THE WORLD OF JOSEF VON STERNBERG (Barrie Gavin, 1967; TV) *** and LATE SHOW: JOSEF VON STERNBERG – THE MAN WHO MADE DIETRICH (David Thompson, 1994; TV) ***

These two documentaries both made by the BBC (the former being 20 minutes long and included as an extra on the reportedly subpar Criterion DVD edition of Sternberg's masterpiece THE SCARLET EMPRESS {1934} and the latter running twice that length – although not according to the IMDb!) compliment the untitled footage showing an interview with the director dating from 1968 and found on the Criterion DVD of his THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928). As had THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS (1967; TV) a BBC special about the notoriously ill-fated (and subsequently aborted) 1937 production of I, CLAUDIUS – they present a pretty honest picture of the man, that is to say they do no not try to whitewash one of Hollywood's most 'difficult' auteurs.

In the above-mentioned interview, conducted by Swedish TV, the by-then retired film-maker is shown at his house introducing the interviewer to his vast collection of paintings. Inevitably, he is pressed on discussing local cinema and, while he claims to admire the director Gustav Machaty, readily admits to not having watched his most notable effort EROTIKON (1929)! For the record, Sternberg was known to be condescending like that – as when he blamed the afore-mentioned Alexander Korda debacle on the whims of his 'spoilt-brats' actors; incidentally, a good deal of footage is duplicated throughout the three documentaries.

While the "Marlene Dietrich" featurette (by the way, I have two more documentaries dealing exclusively with the legendary German actress/singer that I should be including at a later stage in my ongoing Sternberg retrospective!) obviously concentrates on their partnership (both on and off the screen) and is highlighted by the participation of her daughter Maria Riva and Hollywood director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, the Swedish one culminates in the rare chance of observing how the celebrated visual stylist lights a scene – and, even here (despite the off-the-cuff circumstances of the shoot and the fact that 15 years had passed since his last active involvement in film-making), Sternberg's individuality and, by extension, his reputation as a martinet of a taskmaster comes through in spades!

This potentially off-putting characteristic is perhaps even more to the fore in the Sternberg piece shot at the BBC studios for their TV documentary series, THE MOVIES. Here we have a very similar situation to the later Swedish one described above; what makes this particular footage unique is that Sternberg is being interviewed by a very young Kevin Brownlow – who up to then had been a semi-professional if acclaimed film-maker and had yet to earn his reputation as film historian and restorer extraordinaire. I have to say it was amusing to perceive a hint of embarrassment and, dare I say it, terror in Brownlow's eyes at the BBC technicians' seeming inability to rise up to the demands of the distinguished (and increasingly impatient) director in their midst!


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