Marlene Dietrich

“I am at heart, a gentleman”, Marlene Dietrich would say, smile and light a cigarette. Famous for her signature masculine look, ‘The Dietrich’ still remains the poster girl for the androgynous female. Edita Lozovska takes a closer look at an unusual fashion and screen icon.

Marie Magdelene Dietrich von Losch (or as she called herself, Marlene) was born just after Christmas in 1901 in Berlin. From a very young age she knew that acting would be her calling. In 1921 she was accepted by Max Reinhardt, a director, to attend his acting school. This was a first step for Marlene, as it gave her the opportunity to debut in a silent film called Der Kleine Napoleon (The Little Napoleon, 1923). Gradually, Marlene’s roles became more important.

She married Rudolf Sieber in 1924, an assistant director she met on set. Not long after this she gave birth to her only daughter, Maria Riva. There had never been true love between Marlene and Rudolf, and she lived with her husband for only five years whilst having a never-ending list of affairs. In 1929, Josef von Sternberg, an aspiring director who had connections in New York, saw Marlene on stage and decided to give her the chance to act as a cabaret performer in Der Blaue Engel(The Blue Angel, 1930). This was the movie which featured Marlene singing ‘Falling In Love Again’, considered by many as Marlene’s signature song. Marlene said afterwards that she dreaded the experience: “I thought everything we were doing was awful. They kept a camera pointed here (at my groin). I was so young and dumb.”

It’s no secret that Marlene enjoyed sharing a bed with Sternberg and it was him who got her to Hollywood. Her first ever American film, Morocco(1930) was a big hit because it showed Marlene kissing a woman. Marlene never hid her bisexuality and was known for romances with her co-stars. “There is a lack of dignity to film stardom”, Marlene used to say and live with it. Not long after, Dietrich signed a contract with Sternberg for him to produce all of her films.

2This was followed by successes like Dishonoured (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Song Of Songs(1933), which made her the best paid actress of her era. Despite that, there was an aspect that Dietrich disliked. She would always play the same roles: an edgy, sexy femme fatale, who would show off her legs and charm men with her beautiful eyes. As a result of her lack of enthusiasm, her later movies were flops with largely negative feedback. Marlene was branded ‘box office poison’.  Nevertheless, she made a comeback with Destry Rides Again (1939), showing she still knew how to entertain the crowd.

During World War II the girl from Germany became an American citizen. She had to prove that she wasn’t a Nazi or sympathetic of Hitler. Dietrich was one of the first celebrities to entertain American troops, singing anti- Nazi songs in German, for instance Lilli Marlene, the song the troops loved most:

Resting in a billet just behind the line
Even tho’ we’re parted your lips are close to mine
You wait where that lantern softly gleams
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams,
My Lillie of the lamplight, my own Lilli Marlene!

3In 1947 she was awarded the U.S. War Department’s ‘Medal of Freedom’ as well as being made a Chevaliere of the Legion by France. Marlene had very strong political views, she loathed anti-semitism and Nazis.

The lights began to fade when Marlene received fewer and fewer movie offers so she decided to switch her career and become a stage performer. Alcohol became her close companion until she fell and broke her leg during a performance in Sydney, which marked the end of her career as a performer. Her last movie appearance was in Just a Gigolo (1978) starring David Bowie. After this, Marlene isolated herself from the outside world, allowing only a few close people to see her.

For 11 years, Dietrich was mostly bedridden in the four walls of her apartment in Paris. She would make phone calls and write letters as her only form of correspondence. Yet she agreed to contribute to Maximilian Schell’s documentary Marlene (1984)with one condition: she wouldn’t be filmed. Marlene died peacefully in her sleep and her body was brought to Germany and buried next to her mother’s grave near the place where she was born.

2 Responses

  1. Beth

    There’s a fantastic story (possibly apocryphal) about Marlene being refused entrance to a famous hotel for wearing trousers. Unperturbed, she reappeared at the entrance a few minutes later in just her shirt and knickers. They had to let her in because there was nothing specific in the rule book about it!

  2. Danette

    Gorgeous! She’s mesmerizing as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, amazing in Witness for the Prosecution and breathtaking in The Devil is a Woman, that lighting!!!