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3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 21, 2019
3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg

When many filmmakers during the silent era were growing as masters of the form, it was directors like Josef von Sternberg that led the pack with their commitment to filmmaking as an art form and not just a way to make the big studios money. After his short tenure at MGM, Sternberg went on to director commercial successes for Paramount from 1927 to 1935. Yet, the films made during that period were much more than box office hits; they signified the director's singular and distinct visual approach, as well as his increasingly dark vision of morality. The new "3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg" set by Criterion is not only a worthwhile collection of some of his greatest works, it's a set jam packed with rich cinema and cultural history. By upgrading the old DVD box Criterion put out years ago, you will have one of best collector's sets released this year.

In 1927's "Underworld" and 1928's "The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York," Josef von Sternberg turned his eye toward many of the themes touched upon by more famous projects of the time, but this time with the director's unique approach to dreamlike realism. In "Underworld," a potboiler drama about gangsters, the action is carried out in a place that resembles a city, but it's no less obscured by Sternberg's focusing on the smaller details throughout the locations. Smoke billowing is much more than that to him; it signifies an ugly heart at the center of the violence, even when the scenes like a gangster feeding a kitten purport otherwise.

As has become custom with these extensive Criterion collector's sets, a series of terrific essays written by some of the foremost critical minds who have written about Sternberg has been included in a booklet. In Geoffrey O'Brien's essay about "Underworld," titled "Dreamland," the writer makes a compelling case for Sternberg's approach to visuals as a way to achieve something many narratives can't get across - an aesthetic we continue to see throughout the filmmaker's career. Here was a man, as cantankerous as he was, interested less in appealing to mainstream audiences and more in achieving the kind of artistic self-expression that filmmaking allowed him to get across.

The new high definition transfers of all three films look terrific, although the films have clearly seen better days. "Underworld" mostly looks soft, which I can imagine is probably the effect of years of aging. And the multiple scores included on each Blu-ray are great as well, as they can very often dictate two different readings of what is happening on screen. I speak in particular to the difference between Robert Israel's score for "Underworld" and the one performed by the Alloy Orchestra. In Israel's, many of the more exciting sequences are boosted by the score's equally exciting rhythms. In the Alloy Orchestra's, many of the same proceedings grow even darker than they are on the screen. A true mood-setter if there ever was one, and one I'd imagine Sternberg would agree with if he were still alive.

There's an abundance of special features across the three Blu-rays, too. An incredibly thorough visual essay by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom titled "Underworld: How it Came to Be" provides deep historical context to where Sternberg's career was at the time of production, and how that even informed the work he did on the film. Ben Hecht, the screenwriter of "Underworld," even expressed his distaste for the director's meddling with the material. But, as you can see from the finished film, it really enlightens the boilerplate narrative with ebullient scenes of celebration juxtaposed to dark and violent sequences, creating an incredible moral contrast. For those interested in hearing from the man himself, there's a great 40-minute interview with Sternberg included with the Blu-ray of "The Docks of New York" that I highly recommend. More than a director sounding off about his illustrious career, Sternberg goes as far as to show the viewer how to create his expressionistic lighting style.

While the set may be not much more than an upgrade from the 2010 DVD set of the same name, it's still no less a remarkable achievement in film preservation and the preservation of history in general. Pick this up if you're interested in learning about one of cinema's greatest visual artists, as it offers a bounty of information. Plus, all three films are terrific in their own regard. Other special features include:

• Six scores: by Robert Israel for all three films, Alloy Orchestra for "Underworld" and "The Last Command," and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton for "The Docks of New York"
• Two video essays from 2010, one by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom and the other by film scholar Tag Gallagher
• Swedish television interview from 1968 with director Josef von Sternberg
• PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, scholar Anton Kaes, and author and critic Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; Ben Hecht's original treatment for "Underworld;" and an excerpt from von Sternberg's 1965 autobiography, "Fun in a Chinese Laundry," on actor Emil Jannings

"3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg"

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