Towards an Ethics of the Close-Up: Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich
James Phillips (University of New South Wales)

October 10, 2017, 4:00pm - 5:30pm
PHI research group, Deakin University

221 Burwood Hwy
Burwood 3125


Daniela Voss
Deakin University


This paper addresses some phenomenological questions concerning film spectatorship, as prompted by Josef von Sternberg’s Dietrich cycle (1930-35). I propose that there is something distinctive about cinema’s relationship toward its objects of depiction when compared with the representational arts and that it lies in the look or framing of the shot. As a site of artistic agency on the part of the filmmaker, the look differentiates itself from the technological automatism of the camera’s recording of the pro-filmic. This agency of the look does not extend to the cinematic spectator, whose gaze is disconnected from his or her sensorimotor nexus, since the changes in the space that we see on the screen do not result from movements we make with our bodies in the auditorium. This passivity of the cinematic gaze does not support the claims made concerning the gaze’s reifying oppressiveness. As Dietrich’s appearance in Sternberg’s films has been cited (by Laura Mulvey among others) as a prime example of the objectifying power of the gaze, I ask what traction this description has. Sternberg’s close-ups of Dietrich, I argue, can be read differently – as an assertion of female autonomy and as an exploration of a spatiality that does not collude with the off-screen in the viewer’s head to create a world.


James Phillips is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. He has, as author, published with Stanford University Press Heidegger’s Volk: Between National Socialism and Poetry (2005) and The Equivocation of Reason: Kleist Reading Kant (2007) and, as editor, Cinematic Thinking (2008). He has also written over two dozen journal articles on political philosophy and aesthetics, broadly conceived.

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