Marlene Dietrich, the multicoloured angel

Omaggi a Marlene Dietrich di Zoa Studio

With Marlene Dietrich we will close this 2021 and we will resume talking about cinema, and beyond, after a few weeks of “inaction” from the subject. In the meantime, the Zoa Studio team did not fail to visit some cinemas to tell you more and more in the next articles.

From Marie Magdalene to Marlene Dietrich

Born in Berlin on December 27, 1901, which is why we celebrate her today, Marie Magdalene Dietrich is the daughter of a Prussian officer who died when she was still a child. Following this tragedy, she is raised alone by her mother, who ends up remarrying a cavalry officer.

Even before adolescence, she decides to contract her two names to adopt a new one. From that moment on, and forever for the audience, Marie Magdalene becomes Marlene. Very early developing her talents in singing and music (violin and piano), young Marlene Dietrich saw her efforts shatter when she had to give up the bow due to a wrist problem.

This incident did not disillusion her from wanting to have an artistic career. Actually she enrolled in a prestigious acting school, that of Max Reinhardt, a famous Austrian director.

We are in 1921, Dietrich then begins her career on the stage, in the theater and in magazines. We talked about not giving up in the face of defeat or difficulties just a couple of weeks ago with Walt Disney, we find ourselves again carrying this message forward, and we do it with pleasure!

In 1923 Marlene married Rudolf Sieber and the following year she gave birth to her daughter, Maria Elisabeth. During this period, her talent in dance and her beauty opened her the cinema doors. In addition to a few appearances in silent productions, she is aided by her husband, an assistant producer.

It is thanks to him that she integrates a film cast of her in her first credited role of hers (Joe May’s Tragedy of Love).

The Blue Angel

Until the late 1920s, Marlene performed in the cinema, theater and on the stages of music halls. She was later noticed by director Josef von Sternberg who was looking for the heroine of her next film, The Blue Angel (1930). Josef von Sternberg has just found her muse. Marlene Dietrich meets her Pygmalion. They will make films together seven times.

Considered the first talking film masterpiece, The Blue Angel sublimates Marlene Dietrich. “He created me” she will write one day, about the director who offers her the role of Lola Lola, a cabaret dancer who bewitches an old literature professor played by Emil Jannings.

The song she sang, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt (I was created for love from head to toe) became a classic of the era. However, it is a historical inaccuracy to believe that Dietrich was created by director Josef von Sternberg when he was writing her as an actress in the film The Blue Angel.

The personal and professional evolution of Marlene Dietrich

In 1930 Dietrich’s public image had already been fully elaborated. Although Von Sternberg extolled Dietrich’s divine charm in the seven films they shot together, their relationship was always one of collaboration even if at times stormy and almost sadomasochistic.

The actress entrusted the director with the task of casting the character Dietrich thanks to his mastery of film elements, photography, costumes and set design. During this collaboration, Dietrich’s look underwent an evolution.

From a busty and cheeky cabaret actress she became an elegant and arrogant goddess who seduced handsome men and beautiful women at the same time, a reflection of her sexual tastes. She always followed her instincts without worrying in the slightest about the potential destructive effects she would have on herself or others.

Through cinematographic and theatrical interpretations and with cabaret shows, Dietrich shaped a concrete character, that of the bisexual femme fatale who had her roots in the late nineteenth-century obsession for the bewitching and aggressive femininity of the vamps whose best examples are contained in the works of writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde or of painters such as Gustav Klimt and Gustave Moreau.

Marlene Dietrich then began to pursue a Hollywood career, especially as Paramount saw in her the actress who could compete with Greta Garbo, then hired by rival studio MGM. In the United States, still under the camera of Josef von Sternberg, she is no longer Lola Lola but Amy Jolly, although she remains in the role of a cabaret singer (Hearts Burned, 1930). Her role earned her a nomination to the Oscars, the only one.

Germania claims Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich then moves on to feature films with Sternberg: Agent X27, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus and others. Alternatively a dancer, femme fatale or spy, she plays Catherine II of Russia in The Red Empress (1935), a film in which she shares a screen with her daughter, Maria Riva.

The 1935 failure of La femme et le puppet ended her collaboration with her favorite director. As the clatter of boots threatens Europe, Marlene opposes Nazism and takes American nationality. Admired by Hitler himself, the appeals of Nazi dignitaries inviting her to return to Germany will therefore prove to be in vain.

On the contrary, she the actress participated in the war effort by performing in Europe, where she sang in various operational theaters. During these years on the streets of Europe, she gets to know the actor, and now military hero, Jean Gabin. She had hosted him in the United States when he was trying to make it big in Hollywood. The two actors had a six-year relationship.

Moreover, this is not her only link with France, a country that she appreciates very much, since she was nominated Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1949, for “service rendered”.

The young American soldiers, many of whom had never seen Dietrich’s classic films starring Von Sternberg, had the same reactions as the Berlin audience. They idolized her when she sang sensual songs like Lili Marleen adorned with seductive skirts. Or when she joked with them in that unique way of her, cheeky but aloof at the same time, as if she were a Venus descended to earth in the midst of war.

After-war career

Even if she was already touring with the greats before and during the war (Ernst Lubitsch’s Ange, Raoul Walsh’s Manpower), her career after 1945 turned out to be different. She collaborates with legendary directors: she is a cabaret singer for Billy Wilder (A foreign affair), accused of the murder of her husband by Alfred Hitchcock (State Fright), and leader of a cowboy gang for Fritz Lang (Rancho Notorious), but her films never collected a great success with audiences.

Disappointed with the parts Hollywood offered her after the war despite some great collaborations, Dietrich returned to a long-forgotten career: live performances. She began performing alone on a series of tours around the world which she enjoyed with considerable success.

Despite her age, Dietrich continued to play the part of the fallen goddess, helping herself if necessary with artificial expedients. In any case, she still had the opportunity to offer some excellent performances to the cinema, as in the anti-fascist film Judgment at Nuremberg.

Certainly Dietrich had lived much longer than the millennial Reich that had covered her with insults due to desertion and the work done for the enemy. And she had done it with style. The same style that makes every new generation fall into the arms of that provocative Prussian girl- A girl who, one morning in 1915, began to forge a character who would not only be a reflection of her secret passions, but who it would have persisted even after the disappearance of her own creator.

Last years

In the 1950s, Marlene Dietrich could always count on her other career, that of a singer. In addition to recording records, she performed in various countries, including France, Israel and Germany. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, Dietrich was named for only half a dozen feature films.

She owes her last leading role to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment in Nuremberg (1961). As a last appearance of her we mention instead  Gigolo (1978). She acts as a counterpart to the protagonist David Bowie in a film set in the postwar period, a drama in which the world of cabaret is never far away.

The circle is complete. “I still have a suitcase in Berlin”, she sings. But it is in France, in Paris, that this timeless Venus will choose to end her life, out of public view. And it is in French that she will express her joy at her at the announcement of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

She died on May 6, 1992 of a heart attack, on the eve of the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, dedicated to her. The causes of her death are controversial. In fact, Dietrich was bedridden for 8 years due to a progressive worsening of a hip fracture. This caused her deep depressive fits.

In 2002, her secretary’s statements raised doubts that the heart attack was a consequence of the barbiturates. Marlene Dietrich, actress, singer, musician and muse of many directors, political symbol, has embodied not only the sensual and sophisticated femme fatale. She embodied the free woman: a freedom testified by her multiple artistic experiences of hers but also by her numerous relationships with the men and women who have gone through her life.

After all, I am a gentleman – Marlene Dietrich



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