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.

Schell was originally chosen by the producer Karel Dirka to do the interview with Dietrich that was to be the core of the film. It was to be conducted half in English and half in German. Schell is bilingual and Dietrich had admired his performance in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the film in which she played her last important role. The director chosen by Dirka was Peter Bogdanovich. Dietrich turned him down because she did not consider him sufficiently famous, and she bullied the reluctant Schell into directing as well as interviewing her. So there was tension from the start.

Like Truffaut’s Day for Night, Schell’s film is about making—or in his case not making—the film he set out to make. Dietrich refused to appear in it, and she never does—except in clips from old movies, newsreels, and tapes of her concerts. All you get is her voice on the sound track. Almost the first thing it says is Quatsch—nonsense. She repeats the word many times during the ninety-minute run, and almost as often she says Kitsch. Also Dreck. To call her uncooperative would be an understatement. She is dismissive—not only of Schell and the idea of making a film about her, but of almost anything else that comes up in their conversation: method acting, Proust, God (“If there’s a power above He must be meschugge“), psychoanalysis, life after death, feminism, women (“I call them females”), Emil Jannings, and sex (“Es geht auch ohne“—one can manage without). Her disaffected mutter reduces the world to a gray stretch of ruins, like the aerial shots Schell cuts in of Berlin at the end of the war. Only a few indestructible people and values stick up from the rubble: Sternberg, Orson Welles (“You should cross yourself when you say his name”), Burt Bacharach, Remarque, Hemingway, Goethe, Rilke, professionalism, self-discipline, generosity with money, not being sentimental.

Dietrich abhorred the idea of being filmed as an old woman, and possibly she means it more than many stars do when she says her private life is nobody’s concern, not even her own: “Ich gehe mich einen Dreck an“—an idiosyncratic construction which could be loosely translated “I’m none of my own shitty business.” Her contract, she repeats in answer to Schell’s pleading, was to be interviewed, not photographed: “I’ve been photographed to death.” She won’t even let them film her flat in the Avenue Montaigne, and she won’t discuss her films. Schell objects that in that case his film won’t be very exciting. “I’m not contracted to be exciting,” she barks.

Schell interviewed her for twelve hours spread over several days. He had a chance to memorize her apartment and then had it reconstructed in the studio. You see the set being assembled, you watch the lighting and camera crews at work. It is a beautiful film, visually poetic and glamorous, a fitting homage to Sternberg. The bogus apartment is shot through a half-open door against light streaming through muslin-curtained French windows. There are mirrors and console tables and busts. Members of the crew flit by, dark silhouettes with eyelashes showing up romantically à contrejour. Three ravishing young Dietrich look-alikes in tails and top hats lounge and twirl just out of focus. The Schell–Dietrich dialogue and the short-tempered exchanges among the production team are dreamily backed by “Nimm Dich in acht vor blonden Fraun” and “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt.”

We move to the editing room where clips from Dietrich’s films are run through to comments by Schell and his assistants. With them sits a small old German-Jewish lady, bewildered and bewildering, her presence as unexplained as that of the dark lady glimpsed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror (who is, in fact, the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, a friend of Tarkovsky’s parents). But who is Schell’s dark lady? The name Anni Albers appears on the cast list (which has only one column, of course, because everyone plays—or is—himself). Can she be the widow of the irresistible Hans Albers, a German cross between Gérard Depardieu and Maurice Chevalier, the raffish darling of the Berlin public before the war? In The Blue Angel it is Albers who displaces Emil Jannings in Dietrich’s affections. Whoever the old lady is, we can read her as a symbol of the last years of the Weimar Republic when Dietrich was in her prime. Her look of displacement haunts and disturbs.

As for the dialogue between Dietrich and Schell, it is a duel—a duel in the sun with Dietrich as the bull. It begins with her in the ascendant, ridiculing, teasing, taunting, refusing, denigrating. He has to coax, persuade, argue, threaten. Gradually her nihilism gets under his skin, though he remains silky, the emollient Austrian baritone contrasting with her Prussian snarl. Like an experienced bullfighter he shows off her ferocity until the moment of putting in the first barb. Then he asks her where in Berlin she was born. She can’t remember. But she must remember the name of the street where she lived with her parents. Quatsch, of course not; and anyway, who cares? At this point the screen shows a selection of possible residences in prewar Berlin. It begins with dreary proletarian tenements and gradually works up the social scale, but not very far. The camera lingers at the last frame, a turn-of-the-century apartment block with sunless balconies like cave dwellings framed in baroque whorls of gray concrete. This may be where Dietrich lived immediately after her marriage in 1924 to the young assistant director Rudolf Sieber (their open marriage lasted until he died); or it may just as well be where her parents lived.

By dwelling on her implausible amnesia about her childhood Schell makes the first crack in Dietrich’s official self-portrait (he has obviously worked up Marlène D.), which represents a young girl from a rich aristocratic family who trained with Reinhardt only because she had to give up studying the violin because of a wrist injury. Reminded of her nine films before The Blue Angel, Dietrich gets cross and brushes them aside—Quatsch, those were just bit parts (not true: some were leads).

Schell moves on to the famous audition with Sternberg. Eroticism is something I’ve never understood, she says tetchily. It wasn’t what Sternberg chose me for. He chose me because he liked my cool—turning up there without my music. He chose me because I was schnodderig. Schnodderigkeit is a Berlin form of loudmouthed, je m’en fiche insolence; and it fits incongruously onto the image of the jeune fille bien élevée. Incidentally, Kenneth Tynan agreed with Dietrich about her lack of eroticism: “She dedicates herself to looking rather than being sexy,” he wrote. How could he tell? Anyway, Sternberg chose her.

So they made The Blue Angel, which she despises (“It’s enough to make you puke”) and which made her famous. And then, indifferent to stardom and caring only about her daughter, Goethe, and cooking, she went to Hollywood, allowed herself to be made into a star, and cynically submitted to all the rites of stardom.

Schell chooses the clips from her Hollywood films with poetic justice—if that expression can mean doing justice to someone’s poetry. There is a thrilling scene from Sternberg’s Dishonored where Dietrich is about to be executed as a spy. The commander of the firing squad cannot bring himself to give the order to shoot, so a soldier is sent off to find a replacement: meanwhile Dietrich repairs her lipstick. What Quatsch, she comments, what Kitsch. “Kitsch und Dreck.” The only thing she was interested in was getting her fall right. Should it be backward or forward? “Well, I didn’t know, did I? I’d never been shot before.” Another fib, actually: Fritz Kortner had already shot her in 1929 (the year of The Blue Angel) in Kurt Bernhardt’s brilliant, sadistic, and witty silent, Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt. Kortner played a monocled doctor obsessed with Dietrich. She herself radiated—not sex exactly, just radiance. It was quite an achievement in the spectacularly unbecoming clothes she had to wear. Anyway, what she is telling Schell is that the only thing that mattered to her was technique—being professional in her work. It is probably Kitsch to feel that Dietrich had a special affinity with the beautiful, brave, and intelligent spy in Dishonored, who declares that she is afraid of neither life nor death. To Schell Dietrich says that she does not fear death—it’s life one ought to fear.

Among the rarities Schell has to show is a scene from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), in which Dietrich was only a guest star. She plays the madame of a Texas brothel, Welles a corrupt, alcoholic police chief on the skids. He comes into the brothel and finds her alone at a table in the hall.

“You’ve been reading the cards, haven’t you?” [he says].

“I’ve been doing the accounts.”

“Come on, read the future for me.”

“You haven’t got any.”

“Hm…what do you mean?”

“Your future’s all used up. Why don’t you go home?”

Dietrich’s voice is deadpan, but it breaks your heart all right with a Baudelairean sense of the pathos of human depravity, degradation, and doom.

Welles is falling apart. Schell, in spite of his evident admiration, seems bent on making Dietrich fall apart too. He gets nowhere, though, when he tries to draw her on the men in her life: Remarque, Hemingway, Welles, Gabin—up on their pedestals they disappear behind the smoke screen of her fervent admiration for their genius. About Hemingway she is quite specific: their relationship was on a plane way above sex. Having sex is what a woman does to keep her man—not for pleasure. Can it never be pleasurable? asks Schell. Oh well, she grumbles, sometimes maybe.

Burt Bacharach, the songwriter, orchestrator, and accompanist with whom she began her worldwide concert tours in 1953, is the only man about whom she uses the word “love”: not in conversation with Schell, but on a tape of one of the concerts. She leads Bacharach to the footlights and declares her love for him (and her admiration, gratitude, etc.). There is a catch in her voice. But so there was right at the beginning of Schell’s film, which opened with her farewell performance in Paris. She thanked the audience (in French) for being so wonderful. Dietrich was a mistress of the curtain call with tears choked back. We are watching a performance. And Schell, for his part deliberately allows—and allows us to see—his film turning into a hide-and-seek between Sein und Schein, appearance and reality. “Then what is real here?” Anni Albers asks. “You’d better ask the author,” replies the props girl.

Dietrich and Bacharach split up in 1964, but she went on with her concerts without him until well into the Seventies, by which time she was hobbling from various fractures. They did not stop her from being as shamelessly glamorous as ever, slinky and glittering with sequins from a fraction above the nipples to the floor, her hair swinging in a gold lamé curtain, the coils of her white fox cape ramping down into a long train so that she looks like a female Laocoön entwined with huge furry white caterpillars.

Eventually, against her wishes, Schell sneaks a video recorder into the Avenue Montaigne. But Dietrich refuses to watch her old films. Why? Because, says Schell:

Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria.

(No greater pain than to remember happy times in times of misery.)

Dietrich’s agent slipped him the Dante quotation. So after that, why can’t he leave her alone?

Well, obviously, he has to make his film. She gets more and more rattled. “You should go back to Mama Schell and learn some manners,” she snaps. He hounds her about her deceptions. Why does she say she grew up an only child when there is a photograph of her with her sister who was only a year older? Why does she suppress Friedrich Holländer, who wrote the songs and played the piano in The Blue Angel, and was still writing and playing for her in 1948 in A Foreign Affair, Billy Wilder’s film about postwar Berlin? Once more she was playing a ruthless nightclub entertainer, only now Lola-Lola was upgraded to Erika von Schlütow, an aristocrat down on her luck. Those were the days when Hollywood still preferred foreigners to be, if not peasants, then aristocrats like Boyer and Claudette Colbert in Tovarich. That preference seems the most likely reason for Dietrich’s slight (and slapdash) upgrading of her origins. Even on the screen she never seriously went in for being a grande dame except when she played the German general’s widow in Judgment at Nuremberg. She looked like a retired call girl who has married a well-to-do client and been sent by him to his mother’s dressmaker. Her performance was phony, though much praised.

I think Alexander Walker gets it wrong when he sees her as the incarnation of the Prussian Junker spirit. What she represents is the spirit of Berlin, independent, streetwise, sophisticated, and schnodderig. Schell understands this and uses his knowledge of what is closest to her heart when he moves in for the kill. It is 1945; a camera flies over Berlin; acre upon acre of ruins fills the screen, limitless stretches of desolation. Meanwhile the city’s prewar street songs creep stealthily onto the sound track. Dietrich begins to hum along, entranced by examples of Berlin humor in the lyrics. “Himmlisch, nicht?” (Divine, isn’t it?), she half chuckles, half sobs. Her voice begins to go out of control; it weaves over the sound track like a drunk across the pavement.

Schell delivers the final thrust. He begins to recite a poem—a very bad poem by the nineteenth-century Ferdinand Freiligrath. It was Dietrich’s mother’s favorite, and Dietrich begins to chant it antiphonally with Schell:

O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!
O lieb, so lang du lieben magst!
Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,
Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst.

(“Oh love, while you can! Oh love, while you may! The hour will come, the hour will come, when you stand weeping over graves.”)

They get to the verse:

Und hüte deine Zunge wohl!
Bald ist ein böses Wort gesagt.
O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint—
Der andere aber geht und klagt.

(“And guard your tongue! An unkind word is quickly said! Oh God, I did not mean to be unkind—but the other goes away weeping.”)

Here Dietrich bursts into uncontrollable sobs. It makes an effective ending. Shocking. As shocking as a bullfight when the bull is old. It is not just another performance; not appearance, but reality.

This Issue

February 14, 1985