shanghai express

released: 1932

directed by: Josef von Sternberg


written by: David Botros


There have been many an example throughout cinema history of powerful actor-director relationships.

Think of de Niro and Scorsese, or Wayne and Ford, or Pitt and Fincher.

These are the bonds that make great films.

But there is one I’d heard of recently which was that of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

Dietrich became a superstar in the 30s, and her fame was in large part due to von Sternberg –

Or so he would claim.

After discovering her in the German production The Blue Angel, von Sternberg, who directed the picture, enticed Dietrich to settle in the States.

After that, the two became practically intertwined.

They made 6 movies together in 5 years, and what is most notable about these films is the way their – m-hm – partnership, visualized itself onto the screen.

The director had a very specific vision for his star.

He created an entire look for Dietrich, encouraging her to lose weight, to hold herself in certain ways, to dress in certain costumes.

And what many other actors would reject as intense scrutiny, Dietrich accepted.

Through very atmospheric lighting and camera angles, he idealized every aspect of her.

The result: highly stylized yet iconic cinema.

We can argue about the ethics of it; personally, I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, and as for who deserves the credit, it becomes clear that both worked best with each other.

After their contractual split in the later half of the decade, neither was able to capture the striking spirit of before.

All that being said, I found this film only mediocre.

Unfortunately, the story lacked any intrigue.

The characters were one-note and the romance was on-and-off.

Save for a few really great shots – Dietrich’s, obviously, and some modern-looking train sequences – I can’t say I was invested.


It’s a piece of history, to be sure, and I’ll continue to explore von Sternberg’s filmography, but this one lacked the narrative complexity to match its visual ingenuity.

Copyright © 2021 David Botros