Gabriele Annan contributed over one hundred reviews of books and films to The New York Review between 1981 and 2006. The following is an extract from “Girl from Berlin,” a review of five books by and about Marlene Dietrich and of the film Marlene, directed by Maximilian Schell. It was published in the February 14, 1985, issue and may be read in full at nybooks.test/50/Marlene.
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 [Josef von] Sternberg’s six American movies with [Marlene] 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.
The records she made 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 in The Blue Angel. 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.
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.