2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘The Devil Is a Woman’ (Josef von Sternberg, 1935)


Throughout his career, Josef von Sternberg struggled to translate his vision of the post-production code era and his filmmaking began to falter. The incoming cinematic moralizing served more than just to sanitize his content, but it often seemed as though his visual style was also lost. Filtered through smoke and silk, the chiaroscuro lighting that dominated his earlier work was now flooded and flat. The Devil Is a Woman might not be among the worst films of its era, but it lies near the bottom of the director’s oeuvre. It has fleeting moments of reserved brilliance, but rather than flowing effortlessly into the hearts and minds of an audience, it seems labored and callous.

The Devil Is a Woman operates as a retread of The Blue Angel, Sternberg’s original tale of destructive sexual obsession. However, rather than framing a man’s fall, the narrative pins the blame on the woman. Dietrich was cruel and apathetic in The Blue Angel, but she was no monster. The professor embodied by Emil Janning knew better than to throw his life away for a dancer but couldn’t help himself, and he became a fool of his own making. The violence of The Devil Is a Woman justifies itself within the text by presenting the idea that as a liar and a flirt, Concha (Marlene Dietrich) somehow deserves physical retaliation. In a rape sequence that leaves her “black and blue,” the subsequent scenes plays off the dramatic violence as mere flirtation and something she had coming due to her teasing. According to the Hollywood moralists, violence was justified against people of ill moral character.


Dietrich’s otherness translates quite poorly to Spain and so does Sternberg’s filmmaking. With her normally beautiful voice lost to high pitched exclamations and her mystery reduced to mere coyness, Dietrich’s performance crosses the threshold into burlesque. Not totally her fault, there exists very little humanity in the written character to draw to the surface, and with no inner life, how can there be any mystery? Dietrich’s costumes, which once contributed to Sternberg’s romantic world vision, now feel cumbersome. While Sternberg was once able to inspire dreams of Shanghai and the docks of New York, here Spain seems like a cheap set pulled together by way of nondescript rooms and sparse art direction. Eroticism does filter through nonetheless, reserved for brief gestures and glances. The film’s sexiest moment exists in a brief shot of Dietrich’s jewelry adorned fingers toying with playing cards. Tactile and obsessive, these close-ups are tinted with fetishistic desire and inspire a sense of fantasy absent from most of The Devil Is a Woman.

Late in the film, a duel — sheltered by trees of hanging moss from a thunderous rainstorm — feels like the Sternberg of before. The moving camera is suddenly liberated, and the rain offers just enough obscurity to evoke the smoke and silk of the past. As rain slides over the tops of police umbrellas and the characters’ faces become obscured, viewers are left to imagine their twisted expressions as they scream for arrests. The beauty of this final moment, where passion and violence meet, almost saves the rest of the film from tumbling into obscurity.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.