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Shanghai Express

Thoughts on the film by Josef von Sternberg

The history of the cinema is defined by two icons of industrial engineering: the train and the bridge. In the oldest surviving fragment of film, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), photographed by the mysterious and enigmatic French film pioneer Louis Le Prince, the bridge itself becomes a symbol. Not just a geographical setting chosen for narrative purposes, but something more significant.

Conventionally, the bridge is a link between places and people, allowing individuals to travel outside of their own location, and to experience something different and new. However, a bridge can also provide a theoretical link between psychological and sociological states, such as the before and after. For Le Prince, hisbridge linked the pre-cinema to the post-cinema worlds, marking the point at which this new medium, as then still in its infancy, connected us to new cultures, ideas and expressions.

After the bridge came the train and with it the journey; this vessel that transports ideas, characters and emotions, moving like a narrative from a beginning to an end. The brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière would film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896); the first blockbuster. The arrival of the train was like a heralding for the coming of cinema; or more specifically, the becoming of cinema; this medium that had the potential to show us the world as we'd never seen it before; to instil feelings of shock and awe; to transform and transport us through a succession of moving pictures.

A few years later, the English filmmaker George Albert Smith would direct A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). Here, the phantom ride of a camera attached to the front of a train prowling along the tracks on its journey to somewhere, is intercut with a scene of a heterosexual couple inside a carriage, stealing a chaste kiss as the train enters the titular void. In figurative terms, the tunnel itself is like a stand-in for the cinema; a darkened space with a light at the end. The light glows bright as we approach it, like the light of the screen. However, it's the innovation of the film and its early use of narrative cutting that makes Smith's work significant.

A Kiss in the Tunnel [George Albert Smith, 1899]:

From here, trains would be a significant feature of the early cinema. From John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924) to Buster Keaton's The General (1926), and beyond, the two innovations would reflect one another, becoming mirror twins. Both trains and the cinema are communal activities; we share these journeys with other people. Both are passive; we remain in our seat and watch the world turn. Both can create a feeling of anxiety, discomfort or inertia, and both can offer a room to dream.

In Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932), this relationship between trains, the cinema and the experience of dreams, finds the perfect expression. Set mostly aboard the titular locomotive as it attempts its journey from Peking to Shanghai, the narrative of the film mirrors the progression of a train along the tracks. As the journey is diverted or draws to a halt, so too does the film. When the train reaches its conclusion, the film ends.

If the narrative is a mirror to the journey of the train, then the train is a mirror to society. Its passengers, representing a broadchurch, become a microcosm of one faction of society. Among them we find different social classes, hinting at the layers of this culture, the hierarchy and the inequality of wealth. We have soldiers and entertainers, staff and travellers, the frail and even religion. In this context, they become merely representative. Rather than depict conventional character traits, their roles within the film exist to embody certain principles or political characteristics, stating their position and ideologies through dialog, the way protagonists in theatrical plays often do.

Thrown together, these characters will be tested by a subsequent turn of events, which works to upend and debase the social order that the earlier scenes dictate.

Shanghai Express [Josef von Sternberg, 1932]:

As a work of narrative cinema, Shanghai Express is more than adequate. The story is well paced and well developed, introducing relationships, back-stories and characteristics that are each carried through and "paid off" in the final act. The twists in the plot are surprising and help introduce political themes, intrigue and a moral complexity that it might otherwise have lacked. In short, it's engaging, balancing serious themes, hints of violence and contrasting witty banter in a way that feels cohesive.

However, where Sternberg's film is more remarkable is in its iconography, its aesthetics, and in the symbolic or metatextual elements of its construction. To this, Shanghai Express is a film of symbols; a narrative wherein each development of the plot expresses not just a narrative function but a projection of the characters' psychological states. The film is almost specifically constructed around these elements; every facet of its story, from the setting, to the backdrop, to the train itself, facilitating a means for these characters to make sense of their own emotions, turning the film into a genuine psychodrama.

That the film is set during the period of the Chinese Civil War connects less with history than it does with the idea of a divided territory; not just geographical, but psychological. The China as depicted in the film is an occupied territory, but occupied not just by the political rebels, colonialist agitators or the decadent and the damned passengers that define its narrative, but occupied in the same sense that thoughts, fears and desires might occupy our daily existence. These characters are in a state of conflict, and as such, "occupy" a state inconflict; making the catastrophes and the debasements that occur along the way not just literal but figurative as well.

Like The Silence (1963) directed by Ingmar Bergman, Shanghai Express is a dream play. The characters, both here and there, are trapped in a physical space that becomes a kind of psychological limbo. Fittingly, The Silence begins with a train journey through a heightened, almost surrealist landscape of war and devastation; another occupied territory. Is the war real or metaphorical? Is it something that occurs outside the perspective of these characters or within? Is it a projection of their own fear, their trauma or the state of anxiety that holds them captive, or is it simply a dream; a conjuring of the unconscious mind?

The Silence [Ingmar Bergman, 1963]:

Shanghai Express [Josef von Sternberg, 1932]:

Unlike Bergman's film, the backdrop of civil war in Shanghai Express has a historical context. It relates to actual events, but its function within the unfolding melodrama of its characters is no less vague and enigmatic than the fictional wars that Bergman depicts, both in The Silence and in his later film Shame (1968). It is still, to some extent, a vague projection unfolding through the windows of a train. The characters react to it, but mechanically, as if function compels it. They exist always as if sleepwalking through another person's existence.

It's here that I'm reminded of a later film that took great influence from Sternberg's work; Lars von Trier's post-war allegory Europa (1991). Like Shanghai Express, Europa's drama is connected to a train that becomes both an embodiment of the structured narrative and a microcosm of the world in miniature. Its characters are political or philosophical representations that exist to present sides of a specific argument relating to the Second World War, culpability, innocence and the state of post-war Europe. Both films treat historical conflict as psychological conditions; their respective destinations less geographical realities than a state of mind. Both films are coded, stylised and have a dreamlike feeling where characters are robbed of personal agency.

Europa [Lars von Trier, 1991]:

Trier and his co-writer Niels Vørsel make their intentions explicit by creating a framing device around hypnosis. Their film physically takes place while in a state of trance. Sternberg and his screenwriter Jules Furthman are less literal, but the results are nonetheless the same. The atmosphere of the film is stilted, deep and thick; its characters like sleepwalkers moving without recourse; somnambulists lost in some nigh time enchantment that plays out through the window/screen.

In keeping with this, Sternberg's film has the feeling of an endless night. It isn't; bookending sequences are set during the daytime. But it's the impression of the film as something existing within the twilight between sleep and waking, the dreamlike artificiality of the performances, the expressionist gestures of the cinematography and the psychodramatic aspects of the narrative as some internal conflict that the central characters must overcome in order to find a kind of peace, that leave the greatest impression.

Viewed through the prism of Europa, it's much easier to read Shanghai Express on a similar, more expressionist or psychological level. Trier's cynicism means that he ultimately desires to destroy his train, and to destroy the bridge that allows it to travel between two worlds. Sternberg is less cynical. His film reaches a conclusion befitting the films of this period; reaffirming the intentions of characters and moving towards a kind of happiness or hope. Even though the war is still raging, and lives are being lost, it doesn't matter; the war, in this context, always existed as a projection of the inner conflicts within the lives of these characters.

Just as the tunnel in Smith's film provided a necessary function in allowing its two protagonists to share a romantic moment, so too does the civil war of Shanghai Express. Does this make the film weaker, or more exploitative? I couldn't say. However, I found the experience of the film more fascinating, emotionally engaging and beautiful in its design and direction for the way it unfolds in this world of night time shadows; this nocturnal suspension of actual time, wherein characters are trapped, forced to engage with a projected narrative that facilitates a form of emotional transcendence.


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