Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the collaborations between director Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich is their continued fascination. Why do they exercise power over our imagination? Some explanations—Dietrich’s beauty and Sternberg’s stylistic flamboyance—are obvious, but also limited. For what about those viewers who respond to neither? There is at least as much to alienate: antique stories, stereotypical characters and situations, racist attitudes, sexual objectification. Perhaps the fascination results from struggling to reconcile that questionable material with the skill and beauty of its execution.
Start with the sexual attitudes. Dietrich is there to be photographed and fetishized, no more. Moreover, the gossamer-like shimmer around her exploits a prurience bred of repression that may once have excited lust, but which has long since been speciously “liberated.” Contemporary attitudes towards sex are just as warped, but our distortions are a matter of the grindingly explicit, not the playfully implicit. Even Dietrich’s come-hither androgyny, which might once have scandalized, now seems little more than deft mischief.
Then there is the story, an other-worldly grab bag of implausible events made terrestrial only by the skill of character actors in secondary roles. While the Chinese characters are almost uniformly faceless (aside from Warner Oland’s villainous General Chang and Anna May Wong as the woman who gives him his just desserts) the white characters are little better. Even Dietrich’s love interest, Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), is not much more than a cliché image of a stuffy British officer who is there only to be aroused by Dietrich’s charms.
The material probably seemed dated even in 1932 and it is possible that Sternberg and scenarist Jules Furthman chose it for its very absurdity. The liberal dose of sex and exoticism might have seemed slightly outré for the naive or easily outraged. Anyone else was probably in on the joke. The problem with antique material is that it risks looking even more dated with time, particularly when other attributes (such as Sternberg’s style) are marginalized in favor of the nonsense. The reputation of the Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration has therefore predictably waxed and waned with the temper of the times.
That is no less true today. Revival of interest in the films was largely inspired by auteurism, itself now in ill-repute. Sexist and racist content anywhere guarantee fierce commentary. Even at a purely technical level, any film from the period is likely to be dismissed by viewers who think they can do better with the computers in their pockets. And so, is the films’ “fascination” just the last gasp of auteurist prejudice?
Maybe. But Sternberg and Dietrich’s films demonstrate that regardless of the terms of dismissal, style has the power to transcend both dubious material and the corrosive criticism it can inspire. Values in the arts are never static, and criticism never stands still. What moves one way today is likely to move another as the winds shift.