Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Josef Von Sternberg. the Case of Lena Smith

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Josef Von Sternberg. the Case of Lena Smith

Article excerpt

An international team of archivists and scholars has collaborated in an effort to reconstruct an important lost film by Josef von Sternberg, The Case of Lena Smith (1929). As befits the international aspect of this work, the text is bilingual, German and English. The loss of The Case of Lena Smith needs little explanation once one knows it is a silent film from the very end of the silent period in the United States, when the industry readily tossed aside films that were no longer useful a few years after the majority of theaters had been converted to sound. The material included in this book shows that The Case of Lena Smith enjoyed a longer life in countries where the sound film arrived later.The last years of the silent era were notablefor a group of films with an unusually rich use of visual devices such as dissolves and superimpositions, moving camera, panning and travelling shots, sequences of rapid and rhythmical editing, high-contrast and low-key lighting, and a high degree of expressiveness and artifice, known as the International Style, and The Case of Lena Smith as reconstructed here can be said to be part of it.

The collaborators in this restoration project acknowledge the obvious impossibility of actually knowing a film that no longer exists, yet it is surprising how much material has been found and how much we can know of this film. Among the various materials used to recreate the film are: 4 minutes of the film rediscovered by Hiroshi Komatsu in China in 2003; a shot-by-shot continuity made by the film critic Masaru Takada when the film was released in Japan but missing the last 2 reels; various stages of the script, including the "final script," located by Janet Bergstrom; production stills, set designs, and several less direct sources. The editors have inserted at relevant points some literary materials of the same period as the setting of the film, Vienna in the early part of the 20th century. Other inserted texts come from Josef von Sternberg's autobiography and correspondence. There are also several sources for the intertitles. Two title bands appear at the top of the reconstruction: Viennese dialect intertitles from the release in Vienna and the German intertitlesfrom the censorship records. The English translation ofTakada's Japanese continuity mentioned above and the several scripts provide English-language intertitles. The text is interleaved with production stills from more than nine archives around the world. The found 4-minute excerpt of the film is shown via frame enlargements and shot descriptions. Alexander Horwath's essay describes the project to reconstruct the film and also explains Josef von Sternberg's relationship with Vienna. Sternberg spent his impressionable childhood years there and returned to visit a number of times over his lifetime. Horwath outlines social, cultural, and political conditions in Vienna at the time of Sternberg's childhood, and locates other sources that influenced Sternberg's view of Vienna around the turn of the last century. The reconstruction of the film is not easy to read, although it comes with "Directions for Use." The complexities are due to the organization of the material, the several sources running in bands across the page, and the interruptions from the inserted texts. Although the editing team doubtless had their reasons for their decision to organize the reconstruction in this way, they may have been led astray by the fact that they were very familiar with the content of the film. For a reader who does not have the same information at the start, most of the inserted material might have been better placed following the reconstruction itself, or relegated to footnotes or endnotes. This is not to say that the inserted texts are of less value to our understanding of the film or of Josef von Sternberg. On the contrary, the editors should be applauded for including all the material and not giving a higher value to parts of it. This procedure allows the book to be used as a reference and allows each reader to study and interpret the evidence in order to imagine the film. …

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