Everett Collection

Marlene Dietrich in Josef von ­Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, 1932

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 disturbing documentary film Marlene 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.