Film Studies: Marlene Dietrich - woman of the century

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The Independent Culture

People assume Marlene Dietrich was famous because she was a movie star. She seems to have been one of the most beautiful women who ever existed – and she made many movies, didn't she? To this day, the stills of her equivocal face are as mysterious as the Mona Lisa. But that answer doesn't grasp how her fame depended upon being who she was. Though we often refer to images of Marlene as demonstration of the modern icon – that face, that look, that mask – there's also the matter of character. She would have been 100 years old this Thursday, and if we care still it is because of the woman she was.

So, first recollect her failures. Born in 1901, the daughter of a Prussian cavalry officer, she was raised in an upper middle class household. She was meant to be a musician, but she hurt a wrist so looked to acting instead. In 1924 she married Rudi Sieber; a year later they had a daughter. She acted a little, she sang and danced, she was pretty but overweight, and in Berlin she was regarded as a second-rank trouper. Her films had not clicked with the public.

Then in 1929 (she was old already for a movie sensation), the Austrian-born American director, Josef von Sternberg, came to Berlin to make Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), the story of a cabaret singer who seduces and humiliates a strict teacher (to be played by Emil Jannings, the great German actor of the age). Sternberg cast Dietrich. People said he "discovered" her, but he only saw something no one had noticed, a mythic woman who might lend herself to a man for a few nights but who was always passing on – promiscuous, ironic, fatalistic, unattainable.

Of course, he fell in love with her. He photographed her in a new way. He got her to lose weight. He reworked her make-up. He took her over. And she absorbed his teaching and became "Dietrich", the look. Sternberg swept her back to America, to Paramount, and they made another six films together in the early Thirties – Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman.

Today, those are classics – beautiful, stylised pictures about the way in which men prove unworthy of the elusiveness behind Marlene's unique, photographed beauty. They are the great example of the passion that can arise between a director and an actress. But their great films alienated the audience created by The Blue Angel. They were flops that effectively ended Sternberg's American career, and earned Dietrich the reputation of being box-office poison.

By 1935 their partnership was over, and Marlene was stranded. The studio persevered with her, but she wasn't a subtle actress. Few of her films did well. She began to drift. She was as old as the century nearly, and 40 is a dangerous age for beauties. Garbo retired in 1941, and Garbo was a bigger star than Dietrich had ever been.

Then rescue came in a strange form. Marlene was deeply stirred by the War: she loved Germany, she hated Nazis. She put on uniform, and after 1944 went to Europe to entertain the troops. She was good value, singing the songs from her films, showing off her fabulous legs, and brave enough to go right up to the front lines, and then to romance a general or a private.

"Well, they're all our boys, aren't they?" she might have asked in the sweeping sexual urge that had always been ready to go to bed with men or women, if she liked them. (Though she was married still, and carting her daughter around with her – too Prussian to want a divorce.) She made more films after the War – Hitchcock's Stage Fright, Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious, Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, and that famous bit, as Tanya, in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. But that stream dried up, and it was replaced by her live act – crucially in Las Vegas. She took Berlin cabaret to the masses, in dresses she helped design herself and which gave a tantalising impression of nakedness beneath the flesh-coloured sheath.

She sang the same old songs. She showed her legs. She teased the guys. And she was "Marlene Dietrich" now – a great survivor.

That went on until about 1975 when she began to fall off the stage and when no pact of make-up and lighting could deny her being an old lady. At that point she retreated and let no camera see her. She waited, in Paris, to die. It was too slow in coming for comfort, maybe. But she was a tough, brave, practical woman who had survived the way an artist and a lover made her into an eternal icon. And she had remained herself.