The Devil Is a Woman
December 19, friday
19:00 Conference: Santos Zunzunegui
20:00 The Devil Is a Woman (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1935, 85 min.)
Artistic progress never emanates from the public or from those who become its bearers. Josef von Sternberg
There is no doubt that each film is a work in itself and should be treated as such. But it is no less true that a film always maintains more or less deep ties with other works which have inspired it or which it continues, so that a dialogue of greater or lesser substance is established between them. However, we will not attempt here to exhaust the endless chain of cause and effect that can be traced not only through the field of film but in any of the arts. We will limit ourselves to drawing attention to one of the avatars of that dialogue, insofar as it serves to illustrate in a useful way some of the most outstanding elements of the film that concerns us.
One of the forms that this dialogue has taken throughout the history of cinema is that which has led to a whole series of films created around the two figures of the director and his star (almost always female). Avoiding an exhaustiveness which would be inappropriate here, I would like to highlight two of the most significant cases which are both related to the emergence of what we usually call modern cinema (sometimes without knowing very well what we mean by the expression). First of all, of course, I am thinking about the memorable body of films that brought together Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, from the initial Stromboli (1949-50) to the final Fear (La Paura, 1958) made up of five feature films and one medium-length film belonging to a collective work. The second and no less significant case involves Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard in a film adventure played out between 1960 and 1967, through seven unforgettable feature films and an episode of one of those omnibus co-productions that were fashionable during the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties.
But it would be impossible to ignore an earlier example involving one of the most powerful partnerships in the history of cinema which was the pairing of Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich. They formed a couple who, as every respectable cinephile knows, made no less than seven memorable films together between 1930 and 1935. I should note that, in my opinion, although it is not difficult to find demonstrable concomitance in all the works, the first film they made together, the renowned The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Angel, 1930) stands slightly (or considerably, depending on how you look at it) apart from the others. The fundamental reason is the fact that the subsequent six were produced by Paramount Pictures in Hollywood (while The Blue Angel is a German film made by the UFA) so that if we are to be fair with these works we should bear in mind that a major part of her artistic importance is owed to the work of the studio that welcomed her, confirming what André Bazin said when he maintained that in Hollywood genius was an attribute of the system. In other words, though we have now arrived at the case in hand, unlike the two relationships mentioned previously, this more resembles a ménage à trois than a conventional relationship.
In fact, each of these six films can and should be treated as a singular work, but we lose nothing (on the contrary) if we consider them as different avatars of the same complex project in which each new element that is added successively to the whole emphasises the need to never lose sight of that dimension of plural work when assessing the particularities of each film.
The Devil is a Woman (1935) is, in this sense, the last link in a chain and as such it brings together and amplifies the set of narrative and, above all, artistic elements that Sternberg was patiently building film by film. All the films are built around a female image which is always embodied by Marlene Dietrich. She is always a woman whose behaviour is located on the – superior or inferior – fringes of the societies in which the stories that she stars in are set: in several of them the figure of the prostitute is evoked more or less directly (Amy Jolly’s decision at the end of Morocco points in that direction as do all the adventures in Shanghai Express, and also in Dishonored – a streetwalker recruited as a spy). When the woman is an empress (nothing less than Catherine the Great of Russia in The Scarlett Empress) the choice will serve to emphasise her character of supreme erotic fetish, and this erotic-fetishist dimension will reach its peak in The Devil is a Woman with Marlene embodying that role which French erotic language and culture defines as an “allumeuse”.
The extent to which these films reflect the personal relationship between Sternberg and the Dietrich has been discussed ad nauseam. No doubt this relationship between authors and their work exists, but it is another thing to suggest that it is directly projected on the screen. Two quotes from the film-maker will allow us to narrow down this idea. Asked by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma in 1965 about Marlene’s place in his work, the film-maker answered as follows: “Don’t tell me that Marlene fills my work, that she has taken possession of it, that she owns it and drives it … Marlene is not Marlene in my films; accept it, Marlene is not Marlene. Marlene is me, and she knows it better than anyone.” To complement these statements, it should be remembered that Sternberg had settled this debate in advance and with irony in his memoirs (Fun in a Chinese laundry) which appeared in 1952: “My relationships with Frau Dietrich have already been narrated with the camera in seven films. It would not be the slightest surprise to me if this vision was the least true of all.”
Because it should be stated clearly that we are dealing with cinema that steers a course as far away from the dangerous shoals of autofiction as it does from the safest shores of realism. It is, of course, more a case of working in the field of melodrama, but in an extremely stylised way. Hence the indiscriminate use of exotic locations (Morocco, China, Russia and… Spain) in all the films of the series (even the New York and the Chattanooga of The Blonde Venus or the Vienna of Dishonored fit this pattern) which do not bear any resemblance to the real locations (just in case, everything was shot in the studio) but rather they produce spaces that “quote” the popular dream about them. We are always in imagined or, better yet, dreamed about places.
The literary origin of The Devil is a Woman (written for the screen by a John Dos Passos who was fully immersed at that moment in the writing of the final volume of his great USA trilogy) can be traced to a “Spanish novel” entitled The Woman and the Puppet (La femme et le pantin), published in 1898 by Pierre Louys, one of those secondary literary figures so common in nineteenth-century French literature, in love with the romantic Spain portrayed by Prosper Merimée and Théophile de Gautier and put to music by Georges Bizet.
In this novel, invoking a famous engraving by Goya (The Puppet), the author presents us with a series of adventures aimed at showing the extent to which woman is a torment for man, through the story of Mateo, whose passion for Concha Pérez prompts the staging of a series of masochistic situations which, through poetic justice, echoed those imagined by Heinrich Mann which had served as the basis for the film that led to the meeting of the film-maker and his muse. When it came to transferring it to the screen, for Sternberg the whole story became a pretext to achieve what Laura Mulvey defined very clearly in what is already a classic text (see bibliography): “The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce. She is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the viewer’s look.”
As everyone knows, this story has been popular with film-makers since the era of silent films, to the point that there have been at least half a dozen adaptations. I think that it is not an exaggeration to affirm that Sternberg’s film, together with that of Luis Buñuel (in this case entitled That obscure object of desire, neatly borrowing Louys’ allusion to “pale objects of desire”), is the most distinguished, if only because it takes each and every one of the stylistic and aesthetic elements that the film-maker had been accumulating in the different works throughout the cycle to the point of exasperation.
We have already alluded above to the dreamlike character of the locations of the different films in the cycle. In this case, Sternberg and his collaborators invent a Spain that has little to do with the real one, no matter how many elements we recognise immediately because they belong to the realm of the most common stereotypes. But it is an inventory of stereotypes that are first subjected to a DIY operation and then to a subsequent twist that takes them to the very limits, pushing many of the images of the film to the same boundary that separates figurativeness from abstraction, and burying the story (without destroying it) under the imperatives of art. An example is the scene of the carnival in Seville which opens the film, with its explosion of baroque kitsch, with its images which leave no room for the inclusion of another single element, among which the bodies are hidden, between and behind streamers, balloons, lace, veils and masks and anything else that could be interposed to better hide them from view, to better excite the viewer’s desire to see, to better build up to the appearance of the definitive fetish, the woman’s body wrapped in the sublime designs of the great Travis Banton who reached his peak as a costume designer in this film. Here Sternberg again produces an immortal phrase: “Verisimilitude, whatever its virtue, is in opposition to any approach to art”.
In this way the film-maker insists on making a genuine art out of surfaces (a “superficial” art, in the strict sense of expression) on which to project the light. It should be remembered that Sternberg (“I wanted to work without intermediaries”) personally took control (with Lucien Ballard’s complicity) of the lighting of the film. In this way, he demonstrates that the work of the cinematographer (also) consists in sculpting the stories that are told, and the bodies and the places that support them, with light. Making the film camera “an instrument of vivisection”, the film-maker becomes an explorer of “the variations of shadow and light”.
Should anyone be surprised that his definitive dictum was as follows: “If I had to teach the art of using a camera, I would start by projecting a film upside down, or by showing it so many times that the actors and intrigue were forgotten.”
 The series is made up of Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlett Empress (1934) and, finally, The Devil is a Woman (1935).
 At another point in his memoirs, Sternberg states that the creation of a new film star (Marlene Dietrich) was nothing more than “an incidental byproduct of The Blue Angel”. In any case, chapter nine of these memoirs in which he reviews his cinematic journey with Dietrich is well worth reading.
 Sternberg recounted (and we can all give the credibility that we choose to the anecdote though we know that in Hollywood the legend is now in print): “in Cannes, the Pasha of Morocco once asked me why I had not gone to see him while I was in his domain. I replied that I would have paid my respects if I had ever been to Morocco. ‘But I have seen a film of yours,’ he told me, ‘and in it I recognised the streets where some of the scenes take place.’ As I told him that the resemblance was merely accidental and that if I had more talent I would have taken the greatest care to avoid it, he couldn’t stop laughing.”
 I will refer here only to two of the film adaptations of the book: the first, a silent film of 1929 by Jacques de Baroncelli (La femme et le Pantin) and starring no less than one of the few “stars” of real importance from our own cinema, Donostia native Conchita Montenegro and which can be seen here; and the second, the last adaptation of the novel so far, brought to the screen by Mario Camus (La mujer y el pelele, 1990) set in Barcelona and including what was almost the debut of Maribel Verdú in the role of Concha Pérez, accompanied by Pierre Arditi, Antonio Flores and José Manuel Cervino.
 In terms of the history of the film, the Spanish republican government of the conservative biennium considered the image of Spain that the film projected as a national affront. It did not limit itself to banning its screening throughout the Spanish territory but requested that the producer destroy the negative of the film. As any moderately intelligent viewer can judge, Paramount’s decision to ignore the request was a wise one.
 For Sternberg, the construction of “visual drama” involved “animating the dead spaces that lie between the lens and the subject. Smoke, rain, fog, dust and steam can sensitise the empty spaces in the same way as the movement of the camera”.
 Travis Banton was responsible for Marlene’s costumes in four of the films in the cycle (Morocco, The Shanghai Express, The Scarlett Empress and The Devil is a Woman). His designs embody the very idea of glamour and sophistication, through the employment of baroque lines and the use of textures that make us “touch with our eyes” the body of the “star”. There is a short film on YouTube in which Banton is interviewed on the occasion of the premiere of The Devil is a Woman.