Shanghai Express – The White Flower of China | Kinostalgia

25 November, 2022

A retrospective of the seven legendary collaborations between filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich has recently begun at the Romanian Cinematheque, a project signed by the “Active Archive”. Amongst them, “Shanghai Express”, a decadent and sultry bauble, unbeatable in terms of orientalist fascination.

It’s 1932, and the Orient – with its mix of exoticism, enigma, and eros – is still something that can be (or even is outright asked to be) tamed with Eurocentric weapons. The colonialist bourgeoisie has a ball, dressed in piths and woven shirts, a sour and tragic farce in the eyes of Asian extras, prisoners in their own home/land/homeland. The rotten core of this embalmed world animates every shot in Shanghai Express, which is so dense that it ends up justifying, by itself, this entire paraphernal get-together (train carriages, plants, jewelry, and all else), a virtuoso visual spectacle of which Sternberg remains champion. There is also a plot, but it seems to have been dragged in by force, the final concession in the name of a game – that is, fiction – whose rules have long been outmoded. Who of us still cares, in this day and age, about the inner struggles of these wandering revolutionaries? Who of us can still see in it something other than a gag, a sleight of the hand through which the filmmaker pays his debt – offering some meat for the skeleton of this story while playing a moderate tribute to historical reality – and especially pokes fun at the zealous nature of etiquette(monsieur, lady), a cheap screen that hides some of the crassest behaviors imaginable? The most interesting thing about it remains its false climax when a kidnapping is being planned, only for it to falter immediately, whereas the film still has many minutes left to run: a trickery without any consequence.

An inability to tell stories, to set some solid aims, to establish a structure: all of this turns von Sternberg into our contemporary, as the old cliche saying goes. Nowadays, we fraternize with this gaze that is magnetized by the thought of otherness, motionless in front of artifacts from other lands, willing to settle down on a landscape only to dreamily get lost in its twists and turns. How can one turn down this crepuscular luxury – and the director’s mise-en-scene is, indeed, luxurious – in the name of counterfeit love stories which have been told over and over again? On the other hand, Shanghai Express belongs to its own time, traveling to Hollywood with its Flaubert-like (the illustrious author of Voyage to the Orient) intuition in hand, even seemingly exacerbating it – a tangled mess of perfumes, colors, destinies flattened by the film’s black-and-white tones, yet still perfectly discernible in their original texture – to the very point that it’s becoming deformed. A train is just perfect: a space that can be split up, that rejects the distinction between public and intimate, holding the certain advantage (for the studios) that it is indeed going somewhere while remaining still. Less than two years later, Agatha Christie published her Murder on the Orient Express, where other members of the bourgeoisie (or maybe the very same?), leisurely adventurers roaming foreign lands, were acting in a cruel and true piece, finishing it all up by killing each-other more or less figuratively.

Shanghai Express
Shanghai Express

The irony is just as palpable in the case of von Sternberg. It’s more than enough for us to enjoy the stereotype of this elderly woman with an eccentric hairstyle, who is dying after her innocent poodle: a caricature of class opacity, the very same that would give birth to overbearing mothers in the oeuvre of Hitchcock just a few years later. It’s because von Sternberg has finesse, and he constructs Shanghai Express as if it were a glass cube, with each side inviting the other to reflect it. As such, a train becomes much more than a method of transport from one place to another – it turns into a time portal, bearing its passengers from one war (The First Opium War) to another (The Second World War). Similarly, a woman is no longer just a woman: she is the image of the country to another, an object that asks to be observed and – if one were to go all the way down to the feminist theory from the seventies – invaded just like an occupied territory. This parallel is no secret: the Orient has constantly been sexualized (see Delacroix’s harems). By placing young Marlene Dietrich at our feet, von Sternberg does nothing more than lead this idea toward its definitive consequences, calling upon the spectator to embody the imperialist army of the gaze. The process is so striking that it becomes – if one were to force things, but only a little bit – almost Brechtian: again and again, Dietrich surfaces on the screen, extricated from time, a contagious stop on the route of the plot, sculpted in the reflector’s soft light – an image in and of itself, meant for the eyes, and the eyes only.

There is an incredible web of languages, nations, and political programs in the film; an attention to the complicated colors of the place that goes way beyond the Hollywood median. It’s what turns Shanghai Express into a contradictory object, nothing the less than the very best orientalist testimonies, where the act of objectifying the locus goes hand in hand with a sincere admiration towards it. One can certainly do things differently, but this interest in the faraway, with all of its criminal terminations – namely colonialism – was a result of this era of unabashed gusto. A symptom of the male gaze, a whitewashing of imperialist policies, a blindness towards the occupied population, merely a manipulable mass that fills the edges of the screen: agreed, but not fully. Because von Sternberg creates a perfectly coherent work that is all the more complex, given the fact that it – at least partially – renders any attempt at watching it through ideological lenses irrelevant, in favor of a maddening sensoriality that only works in the here and now. As such, the film becomes a document – for example, see the great scene where the steam train passes between the houses, stopped in its tracks by cows and chicken – and the expression of geopolitical forces that can elicit either repulsion or regret, while nonetheless remaining an object that must be inspected in all its minute details. This exoticism is put in the service of a reality that excludes hasty judgments – and it’s the merit of von Sternberg that, between Beverly Hills and Shanghai, between America, the UK, and China, between actors and presences, between imperialism and anthropology, between action and contemplation, he knew how to gracefully straddle the sensitive chord of History.



Director/ Screenwriter




Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.