This award-winning documentary is a resourceful and absorbing portrait of Marlene Dietrich, the German-born actress who became a Hollywood screen goddess in the 1930s.
A decade before her death at the age of 90, Dietrich, in need of income, decided to initiate a feature-length documentary about herself. She wanted Orson Welles, one of her idols, to supervise the project, but he proved unavailable, and the assignment fell to Maximilian Schell, the Oscar-winning
German actor who had appeared with her in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). When Schell arrived at Dietrich's Paris apartment for the first day of shooting, he was chagrined to learn that his star would allow him to record her voice but not her face ("I have been photographed to death!").
This initial misunderstanding was only the first of several in a collaboration that would immediately turn into a power struggle between filmmaker and subject. The entire project was based in a root conflict of interests: Dietrich envisioned the film as a made-for-TV documentary, an essentially
conventional career bio motored by old movie clips; Schell, his eye on theatrical release, aspired to something considerably more personal and revealing. His job was to find and elicit a trace of Norma Desmond in the Dietrich psyche; her job was to repress it. Again and again, we hear Dietrich
telling her frustrated interviewer that anything she had to say about her private life and feelings had already been said in her autobiography.
Schell seriously considered quitting the project and, at one point, threw up his hands and walked out of Dietrich's flat. When he returned, Dietrich, who had been more than cordial to everyone on Schell's crew, blew up. "Nobody ever walked out on me--ever," she told him. "You should go back to
Mama Schell and learn some manners!"
Though all of this conflict, much of which made its way on screen, rendered MARLENE richer and more titillating than the average by-the-numbers star bio, a fair amount of the standard material managed to get included, too. Childhood photographs evoke Dietrich's upper-class upbringing in Berlin,
the gentility and respectability of which she is assertively, almost desperately proud. (She denies, for some reason, the existence of her sister, claiming to be an only child.) Fascinating clips from THE TRAGEDY OF LOVE (1923), a rare German silent, display Dietrich in the small role of a
wonderfully, wickedly coarse-looking flirt.
Some of this quality carries over into her performance in her first great international hit, Josef von Sternberg's THE BLUE ANGEL (1930), a film that Dietrich, looking back, seems totally to misunderstand. Watching the immortal song number "Falling In Love Again," she dismisses it as "ridiculous"
and implies that it, along with other famous moments from her Sternberg films, is "kitsch"--not recognizing that the Sternberg oeuvre transcends kitsch, which is less its guiding spirit than the object of its scrutiny. When Schell gingerly but insightfully suggests that the nightclub act Dietrich
performed late in her career might be closer to kitsch than her work for Sternberg, she disagrees--though she allows that THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935) was her best movie. Essentially, however, Dietrich disliked and disdained the loose women she portrayed on the screen. MARLENE's most startling
revelation, in fact, is that this great icon of sophistication and decadence was, at heart, unapologetically and rather endearingly bourgeois.
In perhaps her finest moment in MARLENE, Dietrich pooh-poohs the suggestion that her wartime anti-Nazi stance or her work entertaining American combat troops was brave: "If someone said 'Look, they're killing children, hundreds of thousands of people'...does it take such great courage to decide
which side to take? No." "I wasn't erotic at all. I was snotty," is the star's astute take on her screen image. For a former "love goddess," her attitudes about sex are surprising: "If they insist on it, one lets them, doesn't one ....We think, oh God, if I don't let him, then he won't come back.
But that doesn't mean we're all that mad about it." Other outspoken opinions are extracted on women's liberation ("I hate it!"), life after death ("What rubbish!"), improvisational acting ("That's amateur kind of stuff."), etc. Then one evening, possibly mellowed by a drink or two and probably
unaware that Schell's recorder is on, she and he read aloud from a favorite poem of her mother's about the remorse one feels after a loved one dies. And as MARLENE ends, Dietrich weeps.
Schell did an inspired job turning liabilities into assets. Dietrich's refusal to appear on camera furnished MARLENE with an evocative ghostlike quality; her differences with its director lent it tension; and the star's evasiveness, along with her tantalizing allusions to her lost screen test for
THE BLUE ANGEL, added a touch of mystery to the proceedings. Although the picture that the long-suffering Schell made is undoubtedly more affecting than the one his recalcitrant subject planned on, one can't help feeling that--despite his admiration for her--she was misled by him, perhaps
unfairly. Dietrich did indeed hate the finished film, but eventually--as it earned acclaim, awards, and grosses--became somewhat reconciled to it.
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- Released: 1986
- Rating: NR
- Review: This award-winning documentary is a resourceful and absorbing portrait of Marlene Dietrich, the German-born actress who became a Hollywood screen goddess in the 1930s. A decade before her death at the age of 90, Dietrich, in need of income, decided to ini… (more)