Where to start with the essential performances of Marlene Dietrich
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Geek obsession: Marlene Dietrich
Why it’s daunting: Before Germany was terrible, it was awesome. Situated between the first and second World Wars, the Weimar Republic produced a number of German artists who made stellar contributions to the various avant-garde movements of the period, such as Bauhaus for art and design and German Expressionism for film. It was something of a cultural supernova—a brightly burning explosion born of catastrophe, most brilliant just before extinction. The cultural output was cut short by the Nazis, who shut down most of the cutting-edge endeavors, but not before Germany could put forward the likes of Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang. Among these cultural exports (and eventual expats) was Marlene Dietrich, a leggy cabaret performer with almost 20 films under her belt by 1930, the year of her breakout success, The Blue Angel.
Dietrich traded in sexuality and amorphism, possessing a bone structure built for dramatic lighting and an ability to jump easily between roles, whether they required no-nonsense willfulness, a coy damsel, or both. Though her acting was initially modeled after her cabaret-singer persona, Dietrich managed a long, varied career, appearing in more than 30 films after arriving in Hollywood. Her resilience relied on her ability to tinker with and mold her charismatic sexuality according to the evolving mores of the passing decades. The appeal of her early work hinged on a hard-edged, almost masculine appeal, which softened over time but was never tucked completely out of sight. Her sexuality is unapologetically and refreshingly unsentimental, though the films she stars in often have her buckling for a man—at times unbelievably—in the end. Diving into her work is daunting because there are several essential Dietrich performances, each carefully and intentionally crafted by a woman who largely kept her personal affairs private.
Potential gateway: Morocco (1930)
Why: Though Dietrich crafted and evolved her persona over time, the best place to start is the film—and specifically the scene—that cemented her gripping physicality into Hollywood’s collective consciousness. Dietrich came to embody the emergent modern woman of the ’20s and ’30s, trading in the doe-eyed, rescue-me-sir-before-I-faint anti-heroine for something far more powerful. Nothing did this more potently than her role as Amy Jolly in Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco, where she plays her cabaret performer (opposite Gary Cooper) with unwavering boldness. As with most of the Von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations, the plot of the film plays second fiddle to Dietrich’s dynamic presence and the chemistry between her and her male lead. Here, Cooper plays a ne’er-do-well with the French foreign legion who pursues the noncommittal Jolly. As with many Dietrich films, and as with many of her contemporaries, she’s in full control of this scenario. But unlike some of those sex-as-power counterparts, in Morocco, Dietrich plays explicitly with gender roles.
In the film’s most famous scene—and arguably one of the best of her career—Dietrich dresses in white tie and performs a song before a house packed with rowdy legionnaires. She masters every moment of the performance, commanding total silence and teasing out long pauses with intoxicating control. She makes the audience wait as she patiently smokes a cigarette; she perches on railings or tables as she saunters around the room, brushing off advances by men. She stops instead at a woman’s table, asking for her flower. The woman acquiesces. Then Dietrich leans down and kisses her on the mouth.
Von Sternberg and Dietrich play masterfully with sexual power during this scene. Early on, Von Sternberg cuts to Cooper as his eyes run up and down Dietrich’s figure. Perceiving this, Dietrich immediately proves herself impervious. Her interaction with the woman at the table is a direct answer to the ingénue: The woman giggles, blushes, and hides her face behind a fan in embarrassment and modesty. Dietrich also fans herself, but nonchalantly and with an easy, amused smile. She easily shifts the power dynamic of the cabaret performance, adopting male qualities and turning the gaze of the audience back on itself.
Amy Jolly and her predecessor from The Blue Angel, a performer named Lola Lola, lay the groundwork for Dietrich’s immense draw onscreen, even as her characters evolved over the years. Dietrich never lost that hard edge she established early; even with her more dithering-female roles, that deep, snappy voice is lying just below the surface.
Next steps: From Morocco, a natural expansion into Dietrich’s work would be to continue watching Von Sternberg’s obsession as it grows and changes. Dietrich starred in six of his films, and he was reportedly enamored with her both on- and off-screen. Von Sternberg increasingly bowed to Dietrich’s gravitational pull during their series of films together, going to often-ridiculous lengths to dress her in exotic costumes and lighting her face beautifully. In Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is A Woman (1935), Dietrich easily dwarfs the rest of the cast, appearing with a sort of lighted halo in many scenes. Devil, the last of the Dietrich-Von Sternberg series, is so over-the-top it borders on farce, but magnificently so; Dietrich wears Spanish dresses and tall headpieces and does nothing but con men out of money and trample on their feelings. It’s certainly a stream-rolled version of Dietrich’s early complexity, but the film produces such eye candy (from Dietrich as well as the elaborate setpieces) that it’s well worth watching.
Where not to start: Immediately post-Von Sternberg, Dietrich seriously stumbled, producing a number of one-note films in the mid-’30s that hoped to bank on her previous success. Dietrich was typecast as a glamorous vixen but failed to push the characters into anything further, and she struggled to find her footing amid the series of box-office flops.
Instead, skip forward to Destry Rides Again (1939), a Western in which Dietrich plays opposite Jimmy Stewart. Released after several ill-received box-office excursions, Destry goes a long way in restoring Dietrich as an actress capable of more than simply beguiling men to do her bidding. The film also primes her for later roles in other Westerns alongside John Wayne (Seven Sinners, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh). The Flame Of New Orleans (1941) nods to both types of early Dietrich characters: She skillfully plays two cousins, one dainty and one crass. Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution—Dietrich’s last hurrah—also includes a standout performance as she takes the stand in the murder trial of her husband.