In Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Josef von Sternberg gives an artfully bewildered, matter-of-fact account of how he handled Emil Jannings that is as wickedly comic as his description of Dietrich is balefully enchanted. The book omits, though demonstrates, the fact that Sternberg was himself one of the most laconic and rebarbative of men. But it makes clear how far Janningss screen persona—of swollen, emotional nobility that is humiliated by fate—was based in the way he behaved. Indeed, von Sternberg makes himself out as Hal to Janningss Falstaff, and it is the case that after The Blue Angel (30, von Sternberg) the actor never regained the eminence lie had enjoyed in the silent era.
Supreme among German actors, he had gone to America and won a best actor Oscar in The Last Command (28, von Sternberg) before sound grated on his impossible accent. The story of The Last Command—of an exiled Tsarist general forced into working as a Hollywood extra—was typical of the way Jannings fed masochistically on pathos. (The attempts to relate Caligari to German national character might do better to examine the vast appeal of Jannings’s gloomy humiliation.) In The Last Command, William Powell plays a director who observes the posturing general; while in reality, only two years later, von Sternberg humbled Jannings by making Dietrich the center of power and attention in The Blue Angel. If only a fraction of Sternbergs account is accurate, then Jannings was a gross, overwhelming sentimentalist, the exaggeration of a great actor that so many critics were ready to admire. Seen today, he is cloyingly unsympathetic. He has only to be compared with Michel Simon, a dignified creator of larger-than-life characters, for his obtuse self-love to be made clear. He was perfectly adjusted to the scale of stylized tyranny or slow-motion self-abasement that fitted German expressionism.
After stage training at Zurich, he traveled in repertory and joined Max Reinhardt in Berlin. He made his film debut in 1914 in Anne Eva (Robert Wiene) and 1m Banne der Leidenschaften. He also appeared in Passionals Tagebueh (14, Luis Ralph); Stein unter Steinem (15, Felix Basch); and Nacht des Grauens (16, Richard Oswald).
Thereafter, his career amounts to a catalogue of German cinema of the period, with Fritz Lang the only notable absentee: Wenn Vier Dasselbe Tun (17, Ernst Lubitsch); Bruder Karamazojf (18, Dmitri Buchowetzki); Der Stier von Oliviera (Bucho- wetzld); Louis XV in Madame Duharry (19, Lubitsch); Rosa Bernd (19, Alfred Halm); Henry VIII in Anna Boleyn (20, Lubitsch); Kohlhiesel’s Tochter (20, Lubitsch); Tragodie der Liebe (21, Joe May); Das XVeib des Pharao (21, Lubitsch); Die Ratten (21, Hans Kobe); Die Grafin von Pahs (22, Buchowetzki); Othello (23, Buchowetzki); Peter der Grosse (23, Buchowetzki); Alles fur Geld (23, Reinhold Schunzel); as Nero in Quo Vadis? (23, Georg Jacoby and Gabriellino d’Annunzio); Njti (24, Paul Czinner); the hotel doorman in The Last Laugh (24, F. W. Murnau); Haroun al Raschid in Waxworks (24, Paul Leni); Tartujf (25, Murnau); Vahete (25, E. A. Dupont); Mephi¬stopheles in Faust (26, Murnau).
He then signed with Paramount and went to America for The Way of All Flesh (27, Victor Fleming); The Last Command and The Patriot (28, Lubitsch); Sins of the Fathers (28, Ludwig Berger); The Street of Sin (28, Mauritz Stiller); and Betrayal (29. Lewis Milestone).
He returned to Germany and to the part of Professor Unrath, the sexual victim ol Dietrichs Lola, in The Blue Angel. Thereafter, he made fewer films, though remaining a German cultural figure-head: Liebling der Gutter (30, Hanns Schwarz); Stiirme der Leidenschaft (32, Robert Siodmak); Der Schwarze Walfisch (34, Fritz Wendhausen); Der Alte und der Junge Konig (35, Hans Steinhoff); Traumulus (35, Carl Froelich); Der Herrscher (37, Veit Harlan); Der Zerbrochene Kmg (37, Gustav Ueieky); and Robert Koch (39. Steinhoff). In 1940, he was made a director of UFA, and the same year he played the Boer leader in the propagandist Ohm Kruger (40, Steinhoff). In 1942, he made Die Entlassung (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) and Alters Herz Wild Wieder Jung (Erich Engel). But after 1945, his enthusiastic role in the war effort excluded him from further work and he died in Austria in retirement.