Falling in Love Again

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

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."

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.  

Von Sternberg had two invaluable collaborators on Morocco. One was screenwriter Jules Furthman, a Howard Hawks crony with a gift for crackling innuendo and blithe contrivance. The other was master cinematographer Lee Garmes, who helped the director splash every surface with spider-web patterns of moonlight and night shade. With Garmes, von Sternberg set about creating a world that was ludicrous by the standards of drab realism, yet atmospherically perfect. A lesser director, setting a scene on a boat, might show bounding waves or, God forbid, an actual hull in actual water. Not von Sternberg, who thought it better to shroud a soundstage with fog and netting, place an extra in a naval uniform, and cue the bleat of a foghorn. The setting comes alive in the imagination; the effort turns the viewer into the filmmaker's conspirator. Compared to von Sternberg's breathtaking artifice, naturalism seems the last refuge of a cinematic simpleton.

Garmes and Furthman returned for 1932's delirious Shanghai Express (September 16 and 17), an international thriller of unparalleled lunacy--a parade of Central Casting exotics across an Asia of smudge pots, scrims, and rear projection. Von Sternberg expends almost no energy sustaining the illusion of train travel; the movie's true engine is the surging libido of Dietrich's Shanghai Lily, who sighs, "Don't you find respectable people...dull?" By this point in the collaboration, Dietrich embodied a demimonde far more alluring than the dull status quo personified by the train's snooty passengers.

The star was even more of an outcast in 1932's Blonde Venus (September 18 and 19), in which her character sells herself to a playboy (Cary Grant) for the sake of her ailing husband (Herbert Marshall). Von Sternberg suggests strongly that she's happier with the amiably corrupt Grant character, and that the square, stolid spouse is unworthy of her sacrifice. With Furthman, the director manages to engineer the humiliation of both men while devising a moralistic "happy" ending as transparent as one of his countless decorative veils. Perhaps to show that he could make his marionette do anything, von Sternberg had Dietrich sing a piece of jawdropping minstrelsy called "Hot Voodoo" while cavorting in an ape suit. Was the filmmaker really suggesting, as in The Blue Angel, that his creation belonged to the lowest, most vulgar rung of humanity--the popular entertainer?

The Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration culminated in two masterpieces of endless morbid fascination. The Scarlet Empress (September 19 and 20), a biopic of Catherine the Great, sandwiches set pieces of astounding perversity in between poker-faced title cards; the effect is one of a history assignment interrupted by opium dreams. Amid a welter of coded depravities ("I'm sure I could arrange to have the horses quartered in your bedroom," says a guard to Catherine's mother, slyly alluding to the empress's rumored equine indiscretions), Dietrich's ruler of imperial Russia transforms from traumatized adolescent to insatiable sexual strategist. The movie has been read as von Sternberg's bitter acknowledgment of Dietrich's power and magnetism, even though she's lit with otherworldly radiance. But who is Catherine if not an actress forced to abandon herself to a madman's increasingly ornate and bizarre tableaux?

In their last film together, 1935's The Devil Is a Woman (September 16 and 20), von Sternberg swept them both into a realm of the senses--a setting alluded to as Spain, but actually a fantasyland of total artifice. It's the ultimate von Sternberg world, full of artificial bulls, artificial bullfights, fake trees, and masked men, an avalanche evoked by heaps of backlot snow. In this setting, it makes perfect sense that Dietrich would play "Concha Perez, the toast of Spain," whose bewitching exploits are recounted in flashbacks by a former victim to a future one. She is unrecognizable as the young woman of The Blue Angel; her face is as stylized as a kabuki mask.

Alas, Dietrich and von Sternberg would not work together again. The latter made fewer and fewer films, the last of which was The Saga of Anatahan, a seldom-shown Japanese drama of near-total abstraction, a work of cinematic origami. (His oft-expressed regret was having to use real water.) Dietrich, as her film career waned, became what von Sternberg had made her onscreen, starting with The Blue Angel and Morocco: a nightclub entertainer, a tuxedoed sylph, an icon of shape-shifting sexuality.  

After watching their films together, one finds it impossible to think of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg separately. It is said that in her later films Dietrich would begin each take with an audible, "Where are you, Joe?" Von Sternberg, for his part, responded sharply to interviewer Peter Bogdanovich's suggestion that there had ever been another Dietrich. "That is ridiculous," he said. "Miss Dietrich is me. I am Miss Dietrich." Like Miss Havisham shaping Estella for conquest in Great Expectations, the director sent his muse into the world to win men's hearts and to break them. And we're left to revel in the triumph and the wreckage.

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