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Marlene Dietrich: Insolent Enigma

July 19th, 2019     by Rachel E. Beattie     Comments

Marlene Dietrich. Image courtesy of TIFF

Before trailblazers like Janelle Monae played with ideas of fluid sexuality and gender, there was a woman who pushed all those boundaries with a demur little smile and a throaty growl of a singing voice. That woman was actress and singer Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich was born in Germany in 1901. She built a style where she was equally likely to appear in public in a shimmering gown or a tailored three piece suit. Either way she was always the height of glamour. She was also openly – and unapologetically – bisexual and polyamorous long before such a lifestyle was considered even marginally acceptable. Through her film roles in Germany and the United States, and a late-in-life music career that took her to cabarets all over the world, Dietrich became one of the most famous and well-paid women in North American and Europe.

Marlene Dietrich. Image courtesy of TIFF

TIFF is currently hosting a mini-retrospective of Dietrich’s films alongside those of director Joseph von Sternberg, with whom she made seven movies. This film series, called Insolent Enigma/Arrogant Auteur: Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg started on June 8th and runs to August 26th, features 16 films, including several that are being screened on photochemical film in archival prints. If you haven’t seen a film screened on actual film as opposed to a digital version you should check one of these out. There is a physicality and a difference to the experience that is well worth it. Two of the screenings – both films by von Sternberg that do not feature Dietrich – are silent films which will be presented with live piano accompaniment by local composer and pianist Tania Gill.

Just a note: There is always an amount of mental gymnastics that you have to do when watching older movies. Though some of these films were incredibly cutting edge, boundary pushing, and well ahead of their time (often because of Dietrich’s performances), they are also frustratingly of their time in terms of the way people of colour and women characters (that are not Dietrich) are marginalized or stereotyped.

Dietrich – much like Madonna, one of her biggest fans and imitators – was always reinventing herself. That ability to transform can be seen in the variety of characters she played during her long career. In the Catherine the Great biopic, The Scarlet Empress (1934), Dietrich starts the film as a naive young 17th century woman married to the Russian Czar, but the longer she spends at court and is forced to adapt to the scheming and grasping for power of everyone around her, the more she grows into a sophisticated manipulator, becoming the empress of the title. Her performance in the early scenes of the film is all wide-eyed innocence. She has a look of perpetual surprise. But as the film goes on her face hardens and becomes more sly. It’s a feat of very subtle acting. Dietrich is able to convey multitudes with just her face. One scene where Catherine dismisses her husband’s mistress features next level shade from Dietrich, all without any dialogue, as she decimates the equally scheming woman, beating her at her own game. And the costumes are to die for!

Probably because of her low and throaty sensual voice, Dietrich played a lot of singers over her 59 year career, including The Blue Angel (1930), which made her a star in Germany, and Morocco (1930), which made her a star in North America. Two lesser-known standout performances in this retrospective are in Destry Rides Again (1939) and Seven Sinners (1940).

In Destry Rides Again she plays Frenchy – a morally questionable music hall girl. Frenchy helps her boyfriend cheat at cards and fleece the townsfolk of their land until her feelings for the titular sheriff, played by James Stewart, makes her question her evil ways. On paper Frenchy is a pretty stereotypical character – the temptress who eventually discovers her heart-of-gold – but in Dietrich’s hands the character is transformed into a rich and complex character. Dietrich shows the audience a whisper of doubt in Frenchy from the beginning of the film, her conscience at the heart of early scenes where she gleefully distracts her boyfriend’s mark to make him lose at cards. Her musical numbers in the film are fun and sexy. The film is very much a product of its time, often to its detriment, but Dietrich’s performance elevates the film and makes it very watchable.

Marlene Dietrich. Image courtesy of TIFF

My favourite of the films in this series is Seven Sinners. Dietrich plays Bijou Blanche, a seductive and provocative nightclub singer, who spends her life being deported from various islands in the Pacific for starting riots in nightclubs as the men – often sailors – fight for her attention. The film features a very young John Wayne who has not yet achieved his bully-cowboy swagger and irksome acting ticks. Dietrich and Wayne reportedly had an affair on-set and you can see that passion on-screen. But what really makes Seven Sinners memorable for me is the incredible nuance and care that Dietrich pours into her performance of Bijou. At first she appears flippant and untouched by her situation. At the start of the film she is deported from yet another island for inciting a riot and she jokes and flirts with the judge who deports her. But Dietrich very subtly makes you feel her desperation at the thought of finding her next home that is always present underneath Bijou’s devil-may-care attitude. When Bijou falls for Wayne’s character, a young naval officer, and starts to see a hope of a new life, Dietrich subtly shows the audience the incredible vulnerability that Bijou had all along.

Dietrich plays a tiny role in Orson Welles’s rehabilitated classic A Touch of Evil (1958), but she makes up for her lack of screen time with a very memorable character and a brilliant performance. Harshly edited by the studio at the time, the version presented in this retrospective has been restored to be more in-line with Welles’s vision for it. Dietrich plays Tana, a fortune teller who has a soft spot for a crooked cop played by Welles. If you can get past the film’s star Charlton Heston in (literal) brown face and the considerable racism expressed by characters we are supposed to like in the film, it is an interesting take on the film noir genre.

Worth watching for its record number of plot twists alone is Witness For the Prosecution (1957) by Dietrich’s fellow German émigré Billy Wilder. In this film, Dietrich plays the German wife of a British veteran of the Second World War who is accused of murdering an older rich widow he befriended. Dietrich brings the right amount of mystery to her character so you are never sure which side she is on.

Whether she was playing a world weary older woman like her turn in A Touch of Evil or a wide-eyed ingénue like the first half of The Scarlet Empress, Marlene Dietrich brings a huge amount of style and swagger to these roles. But she always fills what could be stereotyped underwritten roles with a huge amount of humanity and nuance. Both of these things make her still as relevant today as when she vamped her way across screens throughout the 20th century.

The series runs until August 26th so there is still time to check out some of these excellent films. A student discount is available with valid ID.

Tags: art, media savvy

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