That Old Feeling: Marlene’s Siren Songs

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Marlene Dietrich

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And through it all the Dietrich face smiles, in a facsimile of sympathy. How seriously can a goddess, or a succubus, take the human drama? Life is a comedy to the dead, to the survivor. Which was Dietrich? You decide. But anyway, she'd been around. And moviegoers would come to this totem seeking brittle wisdom. Mordden writes that viewers would "watch her eyes for the flicker of insight into what women see in men."

Like an Easter Island stone carving whose personality evolves and matures with the passing millennia, the Dietrich face was a sculpture that took a while to carve. Maria Magdalene Dietrich, born December 17, 1901, was a true Prussian — one of the things Hitler would love about her — and a military man's daughter. As Frau Bertholt in "Judgment at Nuremberg," she tells Spencer Tracy: "I'm not fragile, Judge Haywood. I'm a daughter of the military... It means I was taught discipline... Control your thirst, control hunger, control emotion. It has served me well." Asked to describe herself in the Schell documentary, she says, "Professional. Disciplined. And good." The first two came from her upbringing as a good German girl, a daughter who learned discipline until it was part of her nature.

The early pictures in the Knopf book — including the only known nude photo of Marlene, taken on a beach when she was about four — offer just the vaguest hints as to the shape that face will take. A high school class portrait from 1915 shows 24 girls, at least half of them as fetching as the 13-year-old Maria. In her 20s, she is again on a beach, with her one and only husband Rudolf Sieber, and he's the one with the great legs. By this time she had conflated her two Christian names into Marlene (which later allowed Cocteau to poetize: "Your name, at first the sound of a caress, becomes the crack of a whip.") But she was still lumpy, if not dumpy, in the full-figured fashion of the decade. In the films she ornamented before "The Blue Angel," she displayed thick arms and legs.

She was 27 — no kid — when Sternberg found her and literally reshaped her, supervising a diet that would slim 20 pounds from her frame and a makeover that would find "the face" under the excess flesh.



JO AND MARLENE

Nobody at Ufa, the German movie studio to which Sternberg had come from Hollywood to make his film, wanted Dietrich to play Lola Lola. Both Erich Pommer, the production boss, and Emil Jannings, the star, strongly disputed Sternberg's choice; they wanted Brigitte Helm, the virgin and robot from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." The curious thing is that Dietrich wasn't crazy about getting the part either. She flounced lazily through an audition, insolent and indolent. And he was hooked. "That's what interested Sternberg," she told Schell a half-century later: "that I was not interested." She was hired, and stardom immediately followed; the day after "The Blue Angel opened in Berlin, she was on a ship to Hollywood. So the question lingers whether, without Sternberg's discovery and transformation of her, the plump ingenue would ever have become "Dietrich."

The Sternberg-Dietrich love affair was played out in their movies. In all of them — "The Blue Angel, "Morocco," "Dishonored," "Shanghai Express," "Blonde Venus," "The Scarlet Empress" and "The Devil Is a Woman" — some older man, often with a Sternbergian mustache, watches in jealousy or desperation or amusement as the Dietrich woman wreaks her pretty havoc and, usually, land in the lap of a younger, more strapping fellow. And behind them Sternberg seemed to cry out, like a masochistic Pygmalion to his heedless Galatea: "I made you, and you can destroy me." In these erotic conquests, perhaps even the Dietrich character was bruised by her victories. As the actress herself said: "The weak are more likely to make the strong weak than the strong are likely to make the weak strong."

These are gorgeous films, whose wit is as much in the details of swirling lace (Sternberg's first job was in a milliner's shop) as they are in Dietrich's face. And, as Sarris cogently observes, the films' interior decoration was a clue to the characters' interior desolation: "The colorful costumes, the dazzling decors, the marble-pillared palaces merely underscore by ironic contrast the painfully acquired wisdom of the all too human prisoners of grandiose illusions.... There are no codes or systems in those dream worlds; the characters retain their civilized graces despite the most desperate struggles for psychic survival, and it is their poise under pressure, their style under stress, that grants them a measure of heroic stature and stoic calm."

Sternberg's avid, yearning camera insured that every Dietrich movement would be eroticized. In "Dishonored," playing an Austrian spy, she lifts her veil to blow out a match, but holds the pucker for a few beats before the blow, in a nice little hint of fellatio. The Dietrich woman had a past that stretched back through the history of the race — the history of man's inhumanity to woman. To quote her famous line in "Shanghai Express": "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

She could also have a good time getting low-down. In the "Hot Voodoo" number in "Blonde Venus," Dietrich performs a bit of a striptease in a monkey suit, then dons a blond Afro with a silver arrow through it (four decades before Steve Martin's camp-comedy routine with a similar prop). She's an albino vision — though, to me, any six of the chocolate chorines prancing around her in that number are prettier, sexier, more appealing. Indeed, some of her co-star consorts (Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, John Lodge) were also more luscious than she.

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