Monday, 30 March 2009

OPULENCE (Josef von Sternberg, 1937)

'I can see heaven; as no man or woman has ever seen... I have burned in the sun's outer rings... charred my wings on re-entry, fallen to Earth with a crash... but I can see heaven...'

von Sternberg's final creation around Marlene Dietrich's hollow stare was his most decadent. A story of a Princess in a mythical Eastern kingdom who seeks the love of her people with ever-grander cityscapes, a multitude of gifts, and lavish balls. Her delirium means that she aims to build the grandest kingdom in the history of time. At first, this ambition causes the people to love her, as streets are paved, glorious food gifted to the poor, jobs secured and every individual paid handsomely. But soon the mania causes people to talk- should streets be covered in gold in a civilised society? Should each resident have every desire fulfilled? - and the more she feels she does for the nation, the more they resent her for what she cannot do- guarantee them against death. When a plague that was thought to have been eradicated by the queen's sanitation plans returns, the people riot. The queen then becomes a recluse, and turns her attentions to the palace. She builds within it a holiday planet of gargantuan excess: over thirty years her army of designers, artists and labourers construct one thousand floors of golden heaven.

The delight of Sternberg's vision is that he sympathises with the queen. She seems to be the most obvious cypher yet for the director on screen- a grand artist whose delirious vision grew unfashionable. Indeed, it is unfathomable that any Post-war director in Hollywood could re-create Opulence's damaged innocence without turning it into a tediously judgmental morality play concerning wealth. Dietrich herself describes Opulence as her favourite film, and suggested in 1984 that:

'... modern Hollywood talks socialism; nary a big movie can be made that doesn't root for the little guy, and bash the powerful. And yet they are made by the biggest and richest. Hollywood is a rich man dressing as a poor man... and Josef was a poor man dressing as a rich man. They hated this... and they hate it even more now...Josef is seen as morally conservative because he wanted to make grand pictures... but he was a rebel, a dreamer, always foreign' 1

Indeed, a strength of Opulence is also a point for which it receieved criticism: There is no explanation of where the money comes from, where the country gets its riches. And the film evades easy feminist readings too- for although the Queen is powerful, she is also beautiful, and she loves her people; she leads without sentimentality, but cares, and ultimately is prone to lengthy bouts of internal wrangling.

In some grand crescendo (gifted to us by a dream from the night before), the queen draws plans for an entire planet that can motor under its own influence, but when her head architect (Lionel Atwill) jumps from the tallest tower of the palace in horror at the never-ending vastness of these ideas, she is distraught: her ambition cannot be sated, she cannot have victory over herself, she can only lose. The final sequence of the movie follows Dietrich from her 40-poster, forty metre bed, up a spiralling staircase moulded entirely from diamonds that cut her feet, through a cavernous parlour the size of The Vatican, into a great hall the size of Switzerland filled with an army of one million blonde children, through a 100 acre interior orchard filled with hand carved wooden trees, golden apples and felt grass studded with sequins, through a flea zoo, an elephant zoo, a Victorian toy room, a midget funfair, a hall of mirrors, entire floors filled with water, or food, or bean bags or nudists, up through levels of complete darkness (for quiet contemplation) and levels of brilliant, shadowless light (for honest self-evaluation), up a slide which inverts gravity, through ever grander and more plush dining rooms and lounges, bedrooms and halls, until finally coming to an elevator-for-one filled with silk cushions that goes to floor 99999, which is still incomplete.
From this point, we can see how close the construction is to the surface of the moon- Dietrich reaches out above her head and lays her hand on the surface, pulling back a handful of dusty cheddar. With tears in her eyes, she tastes the moon, and utters the final, famously stuttered, words:
'It. Needs. Salt. The Moon. Needs. Salt.'

Opulence Directed by Josef von Sternberg Produced by Josef von Sternberg Written by Josef Louys Starring Marlene Dietrich Lionel Atwill Paramount Pictures Release Date US: March 1937 UK: June 1937 Tagline: 'I Can See Heaven'
1. New Yorker interview, April 15, 1984.

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