Shanghai Express

Shanghai Express

A notorious woman rides a train through a dangerous situation with a British captain she loved.


“More action oriented than the other Dietrich-Sternberg films, this 1932 production is nevertheless one of the most elegantly styled. The setting, a broken-down train commandeered by revolutionaries on its way to Shanghai, becomes a maze of soft shadows and shifting textures, through which the characters wander in a philosophical quest for something – anything – solid.”

Dave Kehr1


“The Chinese Civil War serves as the backdrop for this 1932 von Sternberg agent-thriller, but it’s the titular express train bound for Shanghai that will represent the main stage; viewed from more than seventy years in the future, the parallax is still dizzying. A sensual and threatening interplay between light, shadow, and layer upon layer of gauze circumfixes as ever the great director’s gaze, the focal object of which is none other than the incomparable Marlene Dietrich.”

Craig Keller2


“Never the same object of perception from one moment to the next, the face extracts the communication of affects from a fluid and unpredictable collusion with masses of shadow and planes of light. It appears and gives itself up to the difference between appearance and thruth through these transactions with disparate concrete spaces. shot from above with her head thrown back as Captain Harvey leans down to kiss her on the open-air platform at the end of the train, Shanghai Lily is almost unrecognizable: Dietrich’s face is less a point of continuity in the film than a site of experimentation. 

In examining various approaches to the close-up, Gilles Deleuze speaks of “Sternberg’s anti-Expressionism” and “light’s adventure with white”: 

“It is transparent, translucent or white space that has just been defined. Such a space retains the power to reflect light, but it also gains another power which is that of refracting, by diverting the rays which cross it. The face which remains in this space thus reflects a part of the light, but refracts another part of it. From being reflexive, it becomes intensive. Here there is something unique in the history of the close-up. The classical close-up ensures a partial reflection in so far as the face looks in a direction different from that of the camera, and thus forces the spectator to rebound on the surface of the screen. (...)
But Sternberg seems to have been alone in doubling the partial reflection of a refraction, thanks to the translucent or white milieu that he was able to construct. (...) The close-ups of Shanghai Express form an extraordinary series of variations at the edges.”

James Phillips3

  • 1Dave Kehr, “Shanghai Express”, Chicagoreader, October 1985.
  • 2Craig Keller, “Shanghai Express”, Cinemasparagus, January 2007.
  • 3James Phillips, Sternberg and Dietrich: The Phenomenology of Spectacle, (Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 39.


Sternberg op zo'n grandioos wansmakelijke wijze uitgebeeld (zoals een Busby Berkeley het deed in zijn musicals uit dezelfde periode), hij heeft ze zo opgeblazen, dat hij ze meteen ook transcendeerde en aan het stijlloze stijl verleende. Alle kostuums - zowel de Russische kostuums aan het hof van Catharina de Grote (The Scarlet Empress), als de romeinse toga's (I, Claudius), de Spaanse (The Devil is a Woman), de Chinese (Shanghaï Express, Shanghaï Gesture) of de Weense toiletten (Dishonored) - vertonen éénzelfde aspect. Ook de muziek - von Sternberg ‘gebruikt’ heel veel klassieke thema’s - heeft steeds dezelfde kenmerken van pseudo-grootsheid en pseudo-ernst. Overal wordt de ‘artifex’ zichtbaar, alles krijgt ’n niet te miskennen sternbergiaanse toets.”


Erik de Kuyper1

  • 1Eric de Kuyper, “Josef von Sternberg,” Streven, 1 (1966), 265-6.
UPDATED ON 21.03.2023