They called him a “lyricist of light and shadow” – and as Shanghai Express attests, they weren’t wrong. Josef von Sternberg’s frivolous jaunt into civil war-era China is an illimitable cavalcade of exquisitely-crafted images, each one conceived as if it were his last. For this devoted cine-artisan, the sensual interplay between the lucid and the obscure assumes a paramount role, ripening his frames with an elegance that veers into the orgiastic. Compositions therefore double as aesthetic stimulants, their irrational allure pandering to the viewer’s palate with a seductive vigour that effortlessly effaces all resistance. Filtering these meticulous visuals through a soft-focus lens, and seamlessly weaving them together with a series of multilayered dissolves, the director cultivates a process of beautification which gives rise to a chiaroscuro dreamworld: a shimmering landscape of abstruse shapes and figures, carved into splendour by his magisterial manipulation of light. With his sumptuous artistry, von Sternberg orchestrates the perfect antidote to a wildly exotic, though dramatically tepid narrative; a charmingly flavourless cocktail of adventure, mystery and romance that’s so emblematic of the high-concept cinema within which he participated. This dichotomous relationship between script and direction fails to detract from the film however, serving only to aggrandise the extraordinary transcendence of the imagery at hand. Accordingly and beguilingly, Shanghai Express revels in its status as a slice of escapist confectionery, eventually unveiling itself as the ultimate triumph of style over substance.
Or is it? As tempting (and popular) as this diagnosis is, it bypasses the complexity behind von Sternberg’s intent and outright ignores the ambiguities so visible on-screen. Towards the film’s climax, one of its characters revealingly states: “…I’m sure there’s a whole lot more behind this than appears on the surface,” – and when viewing Shanghai Express with those words in mind, its complexion alters most considerably. The apparently throwaway story now proves fundamental to our understanding of the director’s visual essay with its fluid morality, its suspensions of disbelief and, most crucially, its observance of duplicity. Few, if any, of the film’s characters conform to the archetypes that they depict in their initial scenes, and von Sternberg uses this plotting device as a launchpad from which to fashion his own exercise in artificiality. Shanghai Express doesn’t merely celebrate the cinematic image – it’s completely and utterly infatuated with it; dissecting and critiquing it whilst concurrently elevating it onto an unreachable pedestal from which mere mortals can only admire from afar. As his scenes liberally deliquesce into one another, the director lingers longingly upon his flawless constructs before allowing them to fade into obscurity. These stark affectations hint at a world of confused feelings, constantly intermingling, in erratic motion (much like the title’s eponymous train). More incisively however, they point towards our fascination with beauty – quietly contemplating its transience and the processes of memorialisation and exaltation engendered by this most subjective of characteristics. The director’s pictorialism thus becomes as self-analytical as it is resplendent, the images sourcing the film’s substance from within themselves. His luxurious stylisations dare us to locate meaning behind the façade, only to then reveal that the façade isn’t a façade at all, but an objective reality unto itself – and therefore there is no meaning… (or is there?) Outrageously gorgeous yet infuriatingly distant, not to mention unsettlingly devoid of allegory, von Sternberg’s imagery asks us to question its purpose, to evaluate its worth – all the while remaining stubbornly impenetrable, denying us our innate desire to rationalise the pleasures that it offers in such exuberant abundance.
And then, of course, there is Marlene. The greatest pleasure of them all, the implacable core around which the entire conceit is built. Cast as notorious maneater Shanghai Lily (“It took more than one man to change my name…”), Dietrich under von Sternberg’s direction is not so much an actress as she is a model – albeit one with a unmistakable, otherworldly aura. Swamped with artifice (has any star ever been so impeccably-coiffured and lavishly-attired?), she finds herself so firmly enmeshed within her director’s mise-en-scène that the two become impossible to differentiate. Her diction is stilted, her body language mechanical, and her entire demeanour unconvincing – and yet she is never less than wholly bewitching in the role. As she struts and pouts her way through the film with one hand on hip and the other cherishing a cigarette, her director endows her with the best of his cinematic wizardry: lighting her as if she were a celestial life form gracing a vulgar world with her virtuous presence. Dietrich’s thespianic abilities are of scant relevance here, for von Sternberg (typically) is interested solely in her appearance. Thus, she is a mirror upon which his concerns are projected – and in a film so preoccupied with constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing visions of beauty, she is its key exemplar: a walking extension of the director’s finesse, the very embodiment of his glory. Who can resist such perfection? As the audience helplessly surrenders to the myth of the star, we once again find ourselves yearning for meaning behind the surface – vainly over-interpreting her every inflection and gesture as if it were a minor miracle. Little does it matter, for as Shanghai Lily enquires in the film’s most important line (an indirect confrontation of the viewer): “Will you never learn to believe without truth?” von Sternberg’s art is founded upon the opacities within our fantasies, upon pictures that tantalize and tease whilst resolutely clinging to their abstinence. His brilliance is built upon venerating beauty beyond all discernible reason, whilst embedding the critique of that reverence within the beauty itself. With the film grinding to a halt following a Hollywood ending performed with irreverent flippancy by its pre-eminent star-as-image, one can’t help but wonder: what is genuinely real in this director’s world, and what is mere illusion? Then again, surely the great joy of Shanghai Express is that we’ll never really know.