Marlene Dietrich’s ABC
Marlene Dietrich: Portraits 19261960
Marlene Dietrich is generally agreed to have been eighty-four last December, old enough to be fond of old jokes. One of her favorites is a macabre conceit of her own called the deathbed Oscar. It is for old movie actors who have never won an award. If they suddenly find one being presented to them, they should conclude that death is not far off. A whiff of deathbed Oscar hangs around the recent spate of books about Dietrich herself. A biography by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva is said to be ready for publication as soon as her mother dies. Naturally, it is expected to be full of revelations about a private life almost as carefully protected as Garbo’s.
Marlene Dietrich’s ABC first appeared in 1961. It is a collection of banal, worldly-wise aphorisms interspersed with sturdy recipes for beef tea and goulash. The autobiography Marlène D. is something of a mystery, but only a publishing one. It is described as “traduit de l’américain par Boris Mattews” (sic). There has never been an American edition, but there was a German one in 1979 called Nehmt nur mein Leben. The text is a confused affair, omitting some periods of Dietrich’s life altogether, and establishing the sanctioned but obfuscating version of her origins and early life.
Navacelle’s text in Sublime Marlene is what one expects a film star biography to be. The photographs are the thing; they come from John Kobal’s collection and are mostly Hollywood stills. In Portraits 1926–1960, on the other hand, the photographs are all studio portraits. Most of the chosen photographers are—or were—specialists in glamour (Cecil Beaton, Don English, Hoyningen-Huene, Parkinson, Richee, Steichen, and so on); so glamour is the aspect of Dietrich they emphasize. But each also gets across some of her over- and undertones: her loucheness, irony, sexual ambiguity, camaraderie, detachment, and even her quality of being a survivor par excellence, which has made her an icon to fans of nostalgia, “a thorn,” in Benny Green’s words, “in the side of time.” Kenneth Tynan said she makes you feel that “whatever hell you inhabit, she has been there before and survived.” Only Cecil Beaton in 1935 missed Dietrich’s point altogether and snapped a pretty hat on a mindless, chic gazelle.
Portraits has an introduction by Klaus-Jürgen Sembach, the director for the Zentrum für Industriekultur in Nuremberg. With German eagerness for making intellectual connections he links the Sternberg/Dietrich movies with the “International Style” of the 1930s, “a style of high precision, rationality, and, for all of that, sensuous effects…. The severe and at the same time voluptuous shimmer of Josef von Sternberg’s films demonstrated a great affinity with this movement.” You see at once what he means: gleaming Dietrich, the goddess of the chromium curve, Our Lady of the Hispano Suiza. Sembach continues: “At the same time, these films also revealed the risk inherent in this style of becoming too hermetic and remote. This outspoken aesthetic possessed immensely narcissistic traits.” More than twenty years ago, Susan Sontag in her famous “Notes on Camp” cited as an example of what she meant by the term “the outrageous aestheticism of Sternberg’s six American movies with Dietrich.”
Everyone, including Dietrich herself, agrees that her Sternberg period was her greatest. In his films her toughness and sexual provocation were not so much veiled as enhanced and counterpointed by something protective, caressing, resigned, and even sad in her gestures and intonations, something dreamy and mysterious in her appearance (the result of virtuoso camera work). This is true even in The Blue Angel where she plays a cheap and callous little tart.
Sternberg was born in Austria, grew up poor in America, and had worked for several years in Hollywood when UFA brought him to Berlin in 1929 to direct The Blue Angel in two simultaneous versions, English and German. He discovered Dietrich when he was looking for a girl to play opposite the star, Emil Jannings. In Marlène D. the chapter on Sternberg is called “Toi Svengali—Moi Trilby.” Sternberg’s chapter on Dietrich from his sardonic autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry is reprinted in Portraits. His account of how he found her or rather of what he found, differs somewhat from hers. Her story is blurry but implies that she was a slip of a beginner, straight out of Max Reinhardt’s prestigious drama school (which she probably never attended) His version is likely to be nearer the truth: Far from being a debutante, she was in her late twenties, with a husband and child, had made nine films and a number of records, as well as appearing in reviews, musicals, and straight plays.
The records show her in full command of the husky, suggestive, intersexual style of the Berlin nightclubs in the Twenties, with its mockingly syncopated inflections and teasingly drawn-out bi- and trisyllabic vowels. She was not the first or only growler, but she was surely one of the best. Sternberg did not discover her sound, which to many of her fans means more than her overexposed legs. They know by heart every sexy sigh in “Johnny” and “Peter.” Hemingway said “she could break hearts simply with her voice.” In fact she maintains that Sternberg made her raise her register to a common squeak for the character of Lola-Lola. What he discovered was her personality, and even that, he admitted, she already had: he merely taught her what to do with it.
He spotted her in a highbrow musical: “There was an impressive poise about her (not natural, as it turned out, for she was an exuberant bubbler when not restrained) that made me certain that she would lend a classic stature to the turmoil the woman of my film would have to create. Here was not only a model…designed by Rops, but Toulouse-Lautrec would have turned a couple of handsprings had he laid eyes on her.” Sternberg summoned Dietrich for a test. Her attitude, when she turned up, was take me or leave me; she had not even bothered to bring the music for the song she was supposed to sing. Nevertheless, he took her. Had he managed to guess how inconceivably obedient, hardworking, and patient she would turn out to be in the studio? Whatever their relationship (and no one seems to know exactly what that was) it was intense. Alexander Walker quotes Sternberg saying to Peter Bogdanovich: “I am Miss Dietrich—Miss Dietrich is me.” And she agreed it was true. Anyway, she was perfect for the perfectionist tyrant.
Walker’s book contains a large number of photographs of Dietrich before Sternberg set eyes on her, and they make one respect those eyes even more. She looks sexy—but also dumpy, with no neck, no waist, a pudgy face, and mousy hair. Walker’s photographs are extremely well chosen. He has worked hard to establish facts, and his text is perceptive and decently written. His special insight—and he makes it the theme of his book—is that Dietrich’s personality and career are rooted in being a Prussian officer’s daughter brought up to obey, endure, and never show her feelings. This is an idea she too promotes about herself.
It is true that her father, Louis Dietrich, fought in the Franco-Prussian war as an officer in a crack regiment. But by the time his daughter was born thirty years later he was an officer in the police—quite a way down the social ladder. Walker suggests Major Dietrich had to resign his commission because he married into trade—his wife was the daughter of a well-established Berlin jeweler. But it seems just as likely that he was never a professional soldier at all, but only a reservist. He died when Dietrich was ten. Her mother then married Eduard von Losch, who certainly was an officer and whose name sounds aristocratic. He died in 1917. His stepdaughter can’t have seen much of him; in her autobiography she describes quite vividly the completely female environment in which she grew up because all the men were at the front. She also harps on the Prussian discipline imposed by her mother (whom she adored) and claims that it prepared her for being docile and long-suffering on the set.
Walker rides his hobbyhorse hard, reading “military undertones” into all the characters she created with Sternberg, beginning with Amy Jolly in Morocco, who follows her Foreign Legionnaire into the desert and “has to ‘join up,’ become one of the ‘legion of lost women.’… She answers the regiment’s call, passing up the life of civilian leisure and comfort….” One hopes that Walker noticed the London Times‘s list of birthdays for December 27 where (wrongly dated 1904) Dietrich appears flanked by Air Vice Marshall Sir Derek Hodgkinson and Brigadier Dame Mary Tyrwhitt.
Still, what distinguishes Dietrich from other sex symbols is her comradely, if not necessarily soldierly, rapport with men. She is not simply their opposite, whether endearingly like Monroe or dangerously like Bardot or Raquel Welch; she is both their opposite and one of them, one of the boys, whether in the officers’ mess (Dishonored) or the back room. No wonder she attaches great importance to her entertainment tours behind the battle fronts in World War II. She was one of the boys then, and a colonel to boot.
The German song “Lili Marlene” with its fortuitous echo of her name became her biggest number. It’s a song about a girl, sung by a man—a dead soldier. When she sings it—and when she sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”—her sense of the waste of war seems to be a man’s. She is not a mother/sweetheart figure, but one of those about to die or already dead. Strange though this may seem, it is not unique; in Germany Lale Andersen made her name with “Drei rote Rosen gabe sie mir” (“she gave me three red roses”), sung by a soldier on his way to die at the front.
The mocking lesbian overtones in Dietrich’s performances are something else again. She said she copied her famous top hat and tails from the English music hall star Vesta Tilley, whose heyday was between the last years of the nineteenth century and the First World War. Still, one can’t imagine Tilley fondling a chorus girl as she runs on stage, or kissing a lady hard on the lips, as Dietrich does in Morocco.
Every one of the books under review is an attempt in one way or another to get at the truth behind the Dietrich legend—a carelessly thrown together document with missing pages and others doubtfully authentic. By far the most original undertaking is the disturbing documentary film Marlene (not yet released in the US) made by the Austrian-Swiss actor-director Maximilian Schell. He thought he could get Dietrich to reveal the truth, but all he got in answer to a direct question was: The truth about me—long pause—is that everything you read about me is untrue.