In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, the filmmaker Josef von Sternberg described the first time he gazed upon Marlene Dietrich, on the Berlin stage: “She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others […] she was indifferent to my presence.” He was captivated.
Sternberg, a self-made aesthete who affected a worldly imperiousness and directed with mustachios drooping and riding crop in hand, was born in poverty in Vienna and raised mostly in the United States, but had returned to the Continent to direct The Blue Angel, a highly publicized production. A groundbreaking early German talkie, it was to star Emil Jannings, the silent star who won the first Oscar for Best Actor. But it's Dietrich we remember. Hardly as unknown as Sternberg would have it in his surreally egotistical memoirs—Dietrich was in her late 20s by this point, and had worked her way up from chorine to It Girl of the racy and radical theater scene and nightclub circuit in Weimar Berlin—still, the director saw her star image with once-in-a-lifetime clarity, and presented it onscreen in a way that her more than a dozen silent films hadn’t, ensuring them both a century of fame at least.
Dietrich’s role in Blue Angel (1930) as Lola Lola, the careless cabaret singer with the divine legs who a drives pompous professor to the devil, stole the movie out from under the hefty and impressive Jannings, and set the machinery of the Paramount star machine into overdrive. The six films she and Sternberg subsequently made together for the studio elaborated on the fascination of her aloofness. All six were just released this summer by the Criterion Collection in a major new box set, an event for fans of Golden Age Hollywood stars and auteurs, amateur scholars of celebrity, and anyone who really enjoyed their Gender and Sexuality Studies classes in college.
Before “iconic” was overused on Twitter as a way of describing minor-key amusing celebrity gestures and outfits, it was overused by film critics as a descriptor for the great movie stars of classic Hollywood, adored in close-ups. Dietrich, though, was (and is) an icon in the truest, religious sense of the word: the quintessence of the unapproachable-goddess era of movie stardom, when the still-new medium captivated the world with its silvery, larger-than-life images. Dietrich made her deification explicit, and funny—a swoony soft-focus beauty who greeted the camera with more than just a twinkle of condescension. She negged the greatest male stars of her or any era: Cooper, Stewart, and Wayne all experienced the same “indifference” as Sternberg that night at the theater. At the same time, her role as the jewel set in the crown of Sternberg’s pathologically glittering productions, and the duo’s incredibly complicated working relationship, suggest power dynamics of objectification which cinephiles of all stripes are still unraveling. Inscrutable by design, Dietrich in her films with Sternberg is already a legend—the “Empress of Desire,” to quote the critic Andrew Sarris. Or, as Steven Bach, author of the definitive Dietrich biography, would have it: “No actress ever made boredom so erotically riveting.”
In Dietrich’s Hollywood reveal in Morocco (1930), the camera and costar Adolphe Menjou discover her simultaneously, staring off into the middle distance as her ship approaches North Africa, shrouded in fog and offering Menjou an icy shoulder. (She will later deign to let him purchase her affections, after which he will stand by gallantly as she openly cuckolds him.) Dietrich flirts not with her scene partners but with her audience: she rolls her eyes, smirks, purses her lips killingly and looks offscreen, as if imploring viewers, at least, to get in on the joke of what she thinks of the men she’s forced to share the screen with. Her voice, with its deep, purring German accent, sounds as if it was purpose-built to tease. In Dishonored (1931), Morocco’s inspired and silly swift follow-up, she plays a Great War widow-turned-streetwalker who begins the film by seducing, then tricking the head of Austrian intelligence; he’s so impressed, he makes her a spy, a honeytrap whose prey take her bemusement as encouragement.
In the first several American films built around her, Dietrich plays women of experience, for whom love has long since become a game, if that—they care so little for life, in fact, that they’re willing to throw it all away when real passion comes along. In Morocco’s delirious ending, she slides out of her high heels to follow Legionnaire Gary Cooper through the Sahara; in Dishonored, she falls for an adversary and helps him escape back across enemy lines, then reapplies her lipstick before facing down a firing squad. In Shanghai Express (1932), her and Sternberg’s biggest hit, she’s a woman of ill repute now known across China as Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she explains in the best line of Jules Furthman’s script, which makes high melodramatic hokum into a sophisticated romantic crucible. Shanghai Lily’s old flame, British officer Clive Brook, remembers her as Magdalen (in fact “Marlene” was the ambitious young Dietrich’s original portmanteau of her intriguing given name “Maria Magdalene”). When they meet again on the train, she toys with him, taking his hat and wearing it at a jaunty angle in a kittenish gesture of dominance that’s also a guilty play for attention; when the train is waylaid by revolutionaries and the man she loved, who never trusted her, is held captive, Shanghai Lily is willing to submit to any degradation to secure his freedom.
In love, Dietrich is restless—her deep-set eyes dart crazily. The effect is heightened by cinematographer Lee Garmes, who shot the first three Dietrich/Sternberg films for Paramount, and lit Dietrich for close-ups with a single overhead light source so that her sculpted brows cast dramatic pools of shadow. (Bach relates that this flattering lighting scheme was discovered by Dietrich herself, via extensive experimentation in Berlin photo booths.) Overtaken with worry in one Shanghai Express close-up, she wrings her hands, runs them through their hair, pressing it down hard against her scalp—love is a physical malady, an itch she holds off scratching as long as possible, until she gives in with total abandon.
In his Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg holds forth at length on the masochism of actors, desperate for validation and to be the “clay” sculpted by their director—though he’s surely telling on himself at least a little bit with his fixation on the subject. The seesawing between indifference and abjection that recurs in his films with Dietrich, from The Blue Angel on, was a mirror of their collaboration, in which it was never entirely clear who was pulling the strings. Sternberg was Dietrich’s “Svengali”—everyone said so at the time, to the point that Sternberg began to resent it (even as he boasted in his autobiography of her solicitousness to him on set, and her desire to “please” him). Her (false?) modesty goaded him to make her great—there was power in her passivity, as much as admiration and loyalty to her Great Man. (Dietrich initially insisted to Paramount that only Sternberg direct her—and his career foundered utterly without her patronage.) It’s unclear whether or not the two were ever lovers, but Sternberg’s ex-wife sued Dietrich for alienation of affection, leading Dietrich to be dubbed a “love pirate” by the gossip rags. (A love pirate!) Sternberg came to delight in stories of his own “tyrannical” cruelty to actors and crew members, demanding dozens of takes, withholding praise and offering demeaningly specific instructions, polishing his arrogance to serve as armor against his insecurity. He knew that Dietrich’s oft-told story of how she fainted when shooting the desert climax of Morocco, only to have Sternberg correct her English when she garbled her words while coming to (“Isn’t he wonderful? He even corrects my English when I don’t come out of a fainting spell properly”), made him look like a brute, but he couldn’t help repeating it in his book anyway, licking his wounds over Dietrich’s compliance, so deceptively devious. Once, after a fight on set, Sternberg gave Dietrich the silent treatment for three days; Dietrich contrived to pretend to injure herself falling off a horse, and the great sadist ran to her in tears, cradling her limp body and begging her for forgiveness. You wonder whether she cracked a smile.
In Blonde Venus (1932), the exquisite Dietrich/Sternberg suffering was filtered through Dietrich’s own anxieties as an often-absent mother, in a plot, partly of her own devising, about a singer who kidnaps her own child and goes on the run in Depression-era America, rather than surrender custody to the husband she’s humiliated. Conventional wisdom among studio bosses and critics by now held that Dietrich was trapped within the loathed Sternberg’s decadent leanings and arty conceptions, and this was further reinforced when The Scarlet Empress (1934) flopped even harder than Blonde Venus. Sternberg’s version of Catherine the Great—a German princess who moves to a far-off land, changes her name, and learns to play politics and hold on to her heart—is a pointedly autobiographical role for Dietrich; this is also the film in which the Dietrich persona most fully incorporated into Sternberg’s purely audiovisual pattern. As Catherine defies the Russian establishment with her promiscuity and hauteur, Sternberg defies Paramount, who by then was all but finished indulging him, with his stylistic extravagance. It’s essentially a silent film, the narrative more reliant on faces and intertitles than dialogue, and well-known classical music (Sternberg directed the orchestra) swirling around a pageant of period-dress extras and photographic effects. It’s an ironic symphony keyed to Catherine’s discovery of her sexual power and jadedness.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935), their ill-starred final film together, is their ultimate study in sadomasochistic codependence, Sternberg’s “final tribute to the lady I had seen leaning against the wings of a Berlin stage.” Photographed by Sternberg himself (Dietrich thought he captured her at her most beautiful), it’s the story of a Spanish spellbinder who ensnares a local dignitary (Lionel Atwill, whose resemblance to Sternberg many have clocked). She blows hot and cold, mooches money off of him, drives him to jealous anguish, a loss of social standing, a crazed duel and very nearly a suicide, before finally bestowing her pity (her love?) on him in a display of caprice no less unnerving than what’s come before. Seventeen minutes were cut to appease the censors and remain lost, including Dietrich’s performance of the song “If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love),” but the real hammer blow came from the Spanish government, who threatened to kick Paramount’s local office completely out of the country if they didn’t destroy the film entirely. (Something about the slapstick depiction of the Guardia Civil.) It was considered no great loss when Paramount withdrew the movie from circulation, leaving Sternberg poison to prospective employers, and movie insiders discussing how to “save” Dietrich from her Svengali. The film was rediscovered decades later, in time to save Sternberg’s artistic reputation, but not his psyche. In his autobiography, he reprints bad reviews with a professional heel’s pride, while also unspooling his unifying artistic theories at quite a pompous length.
Among those theories are his views on lighting. “The human face should be treated like a landscape,” he wrote, “as if the eyes were lakes, the nose a hill, the cheeks broad meadows, the mouth a flower patch, the forehead sky, and the hair clouds,” all to be manipulated with natural and artificial light sources, filters and gels, and the arrangement of objects within the frame. He and his cameramen were as careful with Dietrich’s face—the way they shaped the “broad meadows” of her cheekbones into cool, shady dells—as Sternberg was with his sets, which he would sometimes touch up with aluminum paint from a spray can he carried, to bring out the right level of shimmer for his tapestries of light and shadow.
In his personal reminiscences, Sternberg dwells more on his early boyhood in the last years of the Austrian Empire than on his years of often dire poverty coming of age in New York City, remembering Vienna’s old amusement park the Prater, with its shooting galleries, log flume and swing rides, puppet shows, sword swallowers, knife throwers, freaks and acrobats—or perhaps he was not remembering, but imagining. The Dietrich/Sternberg films are a high-water mark for backlot exoticism, set in spurious, fanciful Hollywood approximations of Chinese peasant villages or tsarist Russia, summoned with tinsel and papier-mâché. In Dishonored and The Devil Is a Woman, a masquerade ball and carnival, respectively, make the frame practically three-dimensional with streamers, confetti and balloons; seemingly every interior in Shanghai Express is divided by half-slashed rattan screens, and even the New York tenement apartments in Blonde Venus have beaded curtains. Dietrich is the top layer in Sternberg’s incredibly humid mise-en-scène, decked out by Paramount wardrobe maestro Travis Banton in elaborate veils and headdresses (especially in Scarlet Empress), a killer leather aviatrix jumpsuit in Dishonored, and, in Shanghai Express, a wrap made up of hundreds of black feathers, or a bear-sized fur whose hairs sway in the wind like a thousand tiny antennae in these new digital restorations. And Sternberg gives her entrances, like the pan up her stockings in Dishonored (her legs were the toast of the Weimar Republic, and the attention Sternberg paid to them from The Blue Angel on had him labeled a “fool for femmes” by the press), or the way she swims right up to the camera in Blonde Venus.
Dietrich began and ended her career as a cabaret entertainer—outside of her Sternberg mind-meld, it was the tightest grip she could maintain on an outsized persona teetering always in the vicinity of camp—and if you’ve seen Madeline Kahn wolling her Rs and acting “tired” in Blazing Saddles, you have a rough idea of what you’re in for with her musical numbers in these films, though Kahn’s parody-homage can’t help but flounce over how restrained Dietrich was as a music-hall performer, how soft she allowed her voice to get, even as it rippled with suggestiveness. She would talk-sing wryly, often seemingly about to break out into laughter, about her romantic apathy (in Blonde Venus: “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”), or with hysterical double entendres (in Morocco, “What Am I Bid for My Apple?”). For her first Hollywood nightclub-performance sequence, in Morocco, she wears a tuxedo—a nod to the gender-bending fashion Dietrich partook in in '20s Berlin and favored thereafter—and sends a female audience member into delicious confusion by planting a kiss on her lips. (Dietrich, as accomplished a bisexual as anyone who’s ever lived, mailed stills of herself in tux and top hat to friends in Berlin, signing them “Vati Marlene”—Daddy Marlene.)
Hollywood’s puritanical Production Code would increasingly interfere with the very European scenarios that Sternberg favored, but Dietrich’s wicked diffidence had implications that the censors could barely understand, let alone block. The revelation of the entire Criterion set is the infamous “Hot Voodoo” nightclub number in Blonde Venus. A sort of fevered apotheosis of '30s Hollywood’s star-spangled appropriation of black music for its performance showcases, the number begins with tom-toms and spear-toting dancers in “tribal” makeup, leading out a chained dancer in a gorilla costume who, swaying to the music, strips off first one costume hand, then the other, then the head to reveal Dietrich, soon sporting a very short sequined skirt and a blonde Art Garfunkel wig for a song about falling under a primitive spell. Wildly inappropriate, it’s nevertheless unforgettable: There’s Dietrich, swaying side-to-side slightly off the beat with her hands on her hips, throaty and slowing the tempo down to focus your attention, grinning mischievously as she sings about being love’s slave.