What Was Marlene Dietrich Hiding?

10/14/2009 4:14 PM |


The story behind Marlene (1984), just out on DVD from Kino, is one of those fortuitous disasters of cinema lore. It’s 1982, and actor/filmmaker Maximilian Schell arrives at Marlene Dietrich’s doorstep in Paris ready to make a documentary about the legendary actress. Dietrich, however, has an unexpected surprise: regardless of whatever agreements were made before, she now refuses to appear before the camera. Nor will she even allow Schell to film her apartment, or even any of her belongings. “Why?” Schell demands to know. “Because I’ve been photographed enough,” answers Dietrich. “I’ve been photographed to death.” Nonetheless, she does allows Schell to record their conversations, and it is this audio that forms the basis of the documentary.

Marlene is not your typical non-fiction celebrity portrait—and really, how could it be when your “star” refuses to appear on-camera? Dietrich herself admits that “Documentary is a thing that connects the voices that are talking,” so what happens when that seemingly crucial connection is severed? Schell uses this disjunction between sound and image to explore the star persona of “Diectrich” to see what, if anything, it reveals of the “real” Dietrich that she so desperately tried to hide from the camera.

Mixed in with archival footage from stage appearances and movies such as The Blue Angel and Witness for the Prosecution are self-reflexive shots of Schell and his crew rebuilding Dietrich’s apartment on a soundstage, as well as sitting at an editing table going through footage in consideration for the finished film. “What is real?” Schell narrates. “The editing room, the table we are working on. Not the flat—it’s reconstructed from memory… The tape recorder. We can take that as our reality.” Inverting what is typically construed as “reality” by privileging fiction over fact, Schell constructs what could be called an anti-biography. Birth, childhood, family, education, career—Dietrich bluntly refuses to discuss any of these in any depth. Instead, she mostly rebuffs Schell’s attempts at getting her to open up, claiming that audiences won’t be interested in his questions, or that the answers are already available in her own autobiography or one of the other “55” books available on her. (That is the number she continually refers to.)

Diectrich’s hostility is one of the key fascinations of the film. “You are giving me questions that cannot be answered in two minutes” and “It really doesn’t interest me, and it won’t be in the documentary either. It has absolutely nothing to do with me” are two oft repeated sentiments. At once offensive and defensive, Dietrich doesn’t try to hide who is controlling the interview—but Schell doesn’t give up so easily. The battle seems primarily concerned both with Dietrich’s audience (which one knows better what they will want to know?) and the authorship of her legacy. She becomes especially defiant when Schell attempts to apply critical theories to her performances, flat-out denying any personal or autobiographical connection to her characters or any attempt to give them psychological depth. Dietrich would want us to believe her old movies were naïve and have had no cultural or political currency then or now, except on the most superficial level.

Dietrich may control the soundtrack, but Schell controls the image. As Dietrich goes on a tirade against “women’s lib,” Schell reminds us not to take Dietrich’s words at face value. On-screen we see hyper-sexualized, androgynous images of her in a tuxedo tossing Gary Cooper a flower and coyly kissing a girl in Morocco (1930), as well as a hip-to-hip line of undulating women and Dietrich’s notorious gorilla costume from Blonde Venus (1932). Any claim for naivety is thrown right out the window: these were, and more importantly still are, provocative images. Blurring the lines between feminine and masculine, Dietrich’s on-screen persona was a powerful force for female agency and sexual liberation. So half a century later, what is is that she was so afraid of? What was it she was trying to hide?

Neither she nor Schell flatly answers the question. Such is the strong presence of historiography in the film, in which the very notions of “biography” and “documentary” come under close scrutiny. One of the things Dietrich is so concerned with is the re-writing of history in light of new trends, be they cultural, artistic, or political. Despite Schell’s attempt to cast Dietrich as an actor-as-auteur, or forge connections with post-Method realism, her own discussion of her career never betrays the context in which the films were made. And therein lies one of the great contradictions of cinema: a film may have been made seventy years ago, but the projector casts the images upon the screen as though every screening is the first. Perhaps it was just that Dietrich couldn’t understand the longevity of her image and, as she settled into a life off the screen and out of the limelight, she feared her public would abandon her. Seventeen years since her death in 1992 at the age of ninety, it is clear that she is far from forgotten. The silver screen still bears her imprint, deep and everlasting.


Also on DVD this week:

Drag Me to Hell (2009) (Universal, Region 1) – After a decade filled with Katie Holmes, Kevin Costner and three Spider Man movies, Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) returns to the horror genre. It’s never too early to get in the Halloween spirit. And watching movies doesn’t rot out your teeth the way candy does.

Eclipse Series 18: Dusan Makavejev- Free Radical (Criterion, Region 1) – Yesterday was Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev’s birthday, so since you can’t buy him a drink in person, pick up this box-set instead, which includes Man is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), and Innocence Unprotected (1968). Expect radical politics, radical aesthetics, and totally “rad” movies.