In search of...Dietrich in Berlin

At last, this German city is falling in love again with its most famous - and controversial - daughter. Anthea Milnes explains why it has taken so long
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The Independent Travel

Why now?

Best known for her fabulous legs, her husky voice, and a gender-bending cocktail of cross-dressing and bisexuality, Marlene Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene von Losch a century ago, on 27 December 1901, in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. She died in her Avenue Montaigne apartment in Paris on 6 May 1992, but her reputation – as diva, vamp, unsuitable mother, German hausfrau, traitor to her country, and anti-Nazi heroine – lives on.

Did you say hausfrau?

Dietrich managed to combine her life as an international sex goddess with some solid Prussian housewifery, whipping up delicacies such as goulash and apple strudel for friends, stagehands and doormen. Today, the enthusiasts who run the Blauer Engel (Blue Angel) bistro in Schöneberg (00 49 30 78707080; www.blauerengel.de) will, by arrangement, recreate dishes from her recipe book, Ich will wat Feinet ("I'd like something fine").

The Blauer Engel, which received death threats when it first opened in 1997, doubles as a shrine. Black and white photos of the stars line the walls and there are musical evenings which feature live performances of Dietrich's best-loved songs. From here, you can also tour all the Berlin sites where Dietrich lived and worked, taking in Judy Winter's performance in Marlene, the play, at the Renaissance Theater from 26 to 31 December, tickets from £8.15 (00 49 30 26955100; www.renaissance-theater.de).

So Berlin loves Marlene?

These days, yes. Dietrich entitled her memoirs Ich bin, Gott sei Dank, Berlinerin ("I am, thank God, a Berliner"), but this love for the city of her birth was not always requited. In 1930, her performance as the erotic but cynical nightclub artiste Lola-Lola in the film The Blue Angel made her briefly the toast of the town. After the première, however, she followed director, Joseph von Sternberg, to Hollywood, where she became an early and vocal opponent of Nazism. Despite promises and threats from Hitler and Goebbels, she refused to return home, and in 1939 was granted US citizenship. During the Second World War she made anti-Nazi broadcasts in German and spent three years entertaining Allied troops. Consequently, she was forbidden from entering Berlin and her films were banned in her homeland.

After the war, Dietrich returned to the now ruined city to visit her mother. She arrived dressed in US army uniform, and was vilified for betraying her country. This attitude persisted among some right-wingers for the remainder of the 20th century. In the 1960s, when Dietrich sang in Berlin, she was viciously attacked by the right-wing press and met by demonstrators carrying placards saying "Marlene, hau ab" ("Get lost"). "The Germans and I no longer speak the same language," she responded and vowed never to return. Plans for a 90th birthday party fell apart, and as late as 1996, four years after her death, a huge row broke out over whether or not to name a street after her.

Now, as Berlin is reborn, the city is finally falling in love again with its most famous daughter, and is celebrating her life with a series of exhibitions and performances under the title Forever Young.

Cue the cross-dressing chorus lines?

Marlene's stage performances included cabarets at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, which later became the old Friedrichstadtpalast. Now in a new building, the Friedrichstadtpalast (00 49 30 23262326; www.friedrichstadtpalast.de) is hosting a gala for the 100th birthday celebrations, in which stars such as Ute Lemper, Angelica Domröse, Joy Fleming and Katja Riemann will sing Dietrich's best-loved songs. Performances run from 29 to 31 December, tickets cost about £20.

Dietrich's stardom, like her great admirer Madonna, depended as much on her singing or acting talent as on a series of projected personae: an untouchable Venus who drove men mad; motherly Marlene who showered her daughter with love; or the girl next door who liked cooking. Her stage and screen career spanned 53 years, and included appearances in films such as Morocco, Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, and The Devil Is a Woman. An extra scene was written into Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, in which she played the duplicitous wife Christine just in order to expose one of her legs.

Ah yes, wasn't she the first woman in men's clothing?

Joan of Arc and Christina of Sweden beat her to it, but Dietrich certainly set a trend in trouser-wearing. She never threw anything away, and, after her death, 25,000 objects and 18,000 images were gathered together from storage facilities around the world. Some were auctioned at Sotheby's in Los Angeles, but the majority was bought by the city of Berlin for $5m (£3.4m) and archived in Spandau. The Marlene Dietrich Collection – more than 3,000 items of clothing, 430 pairs of shoes, 400 hats, 150 pairs of gloves and 50 handbags – makes Imelda Marcos look abstemious. The 300,000 written documents in the archive include letters from Noël Coward, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Lagerfeld, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, and Orson Welles.

The best of the collection now forms part of a major multimedia display on Dietrich at the heart of Berlin's new Film Museum, situated on the revamped Potsdamer Platz (00 49 30 3009030; www.filmmuseum-berlin.de), admission £3.75 (£1.90). Of the 1,000 photographs and artefacts on display, the most striking are a white swansdown coat and the tasselled flesh-coloured gown she wore underneath it, so she would appear from a distance to be wearing only pearls.

Until 17 February 2002, the Film Museum is also hosting a special exhibition based on who Dietrich would have invited to her 100th birthday party, through letters, photos, documents and other artefacts. On 27 December, the Arsenal Cinema in the same building is showing a selection of Dietrich's films (00 49 30 26955100; www.fdk-berlin.de), £3.50 (£1.90). The exhibition "Marlene Dietrich and the Third Sex" is at Berlin's Gay Museum (00 49 30 6931172; www.schwulesmuseum.de) £2.20 (60p), from 5 December to 1 April 2002.

Where can I pay homage?

Although Dietrich's memorial service was held in Paris, she was buried near her mother in the quiet little cemetery at Stubenrauchstrasse in Schöneberg, her coffin draped in a French flag. The grave is modest. Ringed with ivy, a simple dark grey headstone engraved in gold bears the words "Hier stehe ich an den Marken meiner Tage – Marlene – 1901-1992". From time to time the grave is desecrated by neo-Nazis, but it is rarely forgotten by friends; candles usually burn there and the flowers are always fresh.

The battle to name a street after Marlene Dietrich was finally settled with the creation of Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, a small, new square just off Potsdamer Platz. From Dietrich's bistro (00 49 30 25531234; www.berlin.hyatt.com) in the Grand Hyatt Hotel you can look out over the square while tasting the star's favourite cocktail: lychees, lychee liqueur, blue curaçao and champagne.

How do I get there?

I travelled by courtesy of the German Travel Centre, (020-8429 2900; www.go-germany.net), Lufthansa (0845 773 7747; www.lufthansa.com), and the Hotel Maritim (00 49 3020335; www.maritim.de), just down the road from the Friedrichstadtpalast. A short break to Berlin with the German Travel Centre, including return flights from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel with Lufthansa and two nights' accommodation in a three-star hotel, costs £183 per person, based on two sharing, until 31 December.

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