Falling in Love Again

The alluring "Marlene & Josef" invites us to rediscover a director's desire for his star

By the time Marlene Dietrich sauntered onscreen in 1932's Shanghai Express, her entrance had already been well-prepared--not just by the supporting players (one of whom anticipates her arrival by exclaiming, "Everyone in China knows Shanghai Lily!"), but by her previous roles. Just two years before, Dietrich had startled viewers as a ripe, amoral tart of a cabaret singer in The Blue Angel. In her next film, Morocco, she kissed a woman full on the lips before a dazzled nightclub audience. She was already established as the screen's most brazen sexual adventurer before she gazed from the compartment of a passenger train and exhaled the line that launched a thousand female impersonations: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Actually, it took only one.

To make The Blue Angel, its first English-language production, the German studio UFA contracted the services of a hot young Hollywood director who had guided German actor Emil Jannings to an Oscar--the first ever given for Best Actor. The director was Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese native whose family emigrated to Queens when he was seven. For the role of Lola Lola, a heartless vamp who reduces a stuffy schoolteacher to squawking misery, von Sternberg showed UFA executives a screen test he had made of Dietrich. They saw...what? An admittedly plump unknown, perched atop a piano? A stage actress whose film work was limited to bit parts? To Dietrich, they said nein: They wanted a popular screen star named Lucie Mannheim. "You have just confirmed that I was right," von Sternberg fumed. "Marlene Dietrich is perfect for this role."

That obscure object: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus
That obscure object: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus

What did von Sternberg see in Dietrich? In her obfuscatory 1987 autobiography (less self-portrait than soap sculpture), the actor said it was her discipline, and her willingness to be molded by a man she termed "the Lord of Light." But the answer is more likely found in the seven films she made with von Sternberg between 1929 and 1935--six of which are screening at Oak Street Cinema in a two-week retrospective that runs through September 20. Specifically, the answer is in the director's inexhaustible subject--Dietrich's ever-changing face--and the luminous light and lunar shadow he cast across it. Upon this glorious screen, von Sternberg projected gossamer fantasies of sacrifice, abasement, and desire. She reflected his light until it consumed them both.

The actress floodlit by the male director's bulb is the most controversially patriarchal of movie conventions. It also results in some pretty hot movies. We think of Hitchcock's succession of icy blondes; of Orson Welles chopping Rita Hayworth's tresses; of Woody's Diane (if not his Mia). We think of Anna Karina transfixing Godard before the camera even as their marriage disintegrated behind it. Von Sternberg's films with Dietrich are just as intense. Under von Sternberg's instruction, Dietrich lost weight, learned to speak "American," and placed herself completely at his disposal, onscreen and off. In turn, he made her the queen of imaginary kingdoms, as artificial as the "von" before his surname. (It was added by a producer, who thought it looked classy on a marquee.) In the course of these seven movies, actress and director vanish into a realm of abstraction that grows more feverish and synthetic with each film.

Desire and its attendant risk--humiliation--are the twin emotional poles of the movies von Sternberg made with Dietrich. The most realistic of their collaborations is the still-shocking Blue Angel (screening for a week in a restored print beginning Saturday), perhaps because Jannings's character is the focus rather than Dietrich's naughty saloon girl. The teacher's delusion is measured against the object of his passion: a round-faced, thick-waisted vixen with a mockingly earthy laugh. Ironically, Dietrich would never again seem so unaffected, so human.

The Blue Angel established a pattern that would be repeated with variations from film to film. Dietrich, intentionally or not, would always be a heartbreaker. There would always be men to provide assistance--with strings attached. "Every man who's offered to help me has had a price," Dietrich's sultry chanteuse claims in Morocco. "What's yours?" The men who pursue Dietrich's characters end up dead, ruined, or just embarrassed--but not because these women deceive them. Rather, it's because each of the men sees not the woman, but the reflection of his own fantasies. Indeed, only a man as self-obsessed as Jannings's teacher could listen to Lola Lola's who's-in-my-bed-this-week? theme song, "Falling in Love Again," and hear wedding bells.

 

The first flowering of the Dietrich/von Sternberg hothouse style is 1930's incomparable Morocco (screening September 17 and 18), made after The Blue Angel but released first in America to secure Dietrich's stardom under contract to Paramount. Set in a blatantly fake oasis of smoke, sand, and artfully placed palm fronds, Morocco is a heat mirage of a movie. The atmosphere is pure sexual humidity, as native girls size up burly legionnaires with unconcealed hunger. Dietrich herself is no less abstract: The fleshy strumpet of The Blue Angel is now a svelte, tuxedo-clad androgyne, and when she romances Gary Cooper's pretty-boy soldier, the movie becomes a riot of omnisexual entendres. The final sequence is the epitome of sensual entrancement, as a mesmerized Dietrich joins a group of camp followers (no pun intended) trailing Cooper and his men into the desert: She passes through an archway into the sculpted dunes; the sand swallows her high heels.

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