Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Actor-turned-filmmaker Maximilian Schell probably thought he’d scored a major coup when the legendarily reclusive Marlene Dietrich agreed to sit down and talk to him for a feature-length documentary about her career. But watching 1984’s Marlene, the fascinating, frustrating film that resulted, it’s safe to imagine that Schell had ample opportunity to curse his good fortune. Arguing that she’d been photographed enough for several lifetimes, the elderly Dietrich refused to be filmed, and she fought Schell for control over the film at every turn. So Marlene, almost by default, becomes a film less about a famous movie star looking back at her outsized life than the difficulties of making a documentary about such an antagonistic, seemingly unwilling figure.


Dietrich proves the most passive-aggressive and prickly of subjects. The feminist icon talks witheringly and dismissively about her gender. The screen legend derides most of her films as embarrassing kitsch, and collaborators like her Blue Angel costar Emil Jannings as a shameless ham. She seems perplexed and mildly enraged that anyone would even be interested in her. And though she asserts her respect and admiration for Schell as an actor several times, one can only imagine how she would have treated a director she didn’t like and admire.

Marlene evolves into an epic power struggle between a director intent on pulling back the curtain on the Dietrich legend and a subject intent on revealing as little about herself as possible. Yet the more Dietrich obfuscates, the more fascinating she becomes. She steadfastly refuses to discuss her private life and past loves, and couldn’t be less interested in rehashing the highlights of her film career. As the film progresses and the director’s frustration mounts, Schell resorts to desperate measures, and his resentment toward Dietrich becomes clear in the film’s overwrought ending. Schell ultimately got a compelling, dramatic documentary out of his tussles with Dietrich. It just obviously wasn’t the film he wanted, or expected to make.

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