This Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 AM the Music Box will show The Blue Angel, kicking off a retrospective of the seven films made by Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg between 1930 and 1935. The films screen in chronological order, continuing next week with Morocco and concluding with The Devil Is a Woman (based on the same source material as Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire) on November 22 and 23. Presented entirely on 35-millimeter, the series is a must-see event. Few directors have been as obsessed as von Sternberg by the properties of light and shadow—watching his work on celluloid is comparable to attending a painting exhibition. And as any camp enthusiast will tell you, some of his collaborations with Dietrich can be gloriously giggle-inducing.
The series makes for a worthwhile companion piece with the 1930s-Hitchcock retrospective concluding tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Hitchcock’s 30s work presents a satisfying narrative, as the director deviates from the suspense genre for which he was already famous (thanks to such hits as Blackmail and Murder!) to experiment with tone (Number 17) and different genres (Rich and Strange, Waltzes From Vienna) before returning to familiar material with a greater command of form (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent). By comparison, von Sternberg’s collaborations with Dietrich represent a series of theme and variation. The films after Blue Angel don’t build on that achievement, per se, but rather pursue subtly different ways to approach the subjects introduced in that film—among them doomed love, expressionist lighting, sexual obsession, and Dietrich’s statuesque beauty. Like the Hitchcock series, this program illustrates just how obsessive and experimental genre cinema could be in the 1930s. It wouldn’t be too great a stretch to pair any of the Dietrich-von Sternberg films with Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, released the same year as Blue Angel.