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Marlene Dietrich (1901 - 1992)

Lifespan: 1901 - 1992

Related: German cinema - actress - femme fatale - sex symbol - Weimar culture - female dandy

Titles: The Devil Is a Woman (1935) - Josef von Sternberg


Marie Magdalene "Marlene" Dietrich (December 27, 1901 - May 6, 1992) was a German actress and singer.

Born in Berlin, Dietrich played the violin before joining an acting school in 1921, making her film debut the following year. After playing in only German movies at first, she got her first role in a Hollywood movie in 1930: Morocco (for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress), after her role in the German movie The Blue Angel.

Her most lasting contribution to film history was as the star in several films directed by Josef von Sternberg in the early 1930s, such as The Scarlet Empress and Shanghai Express, in which she played "femme fatales". She gradually broadened her repertoire in roles such as Destry Rides Again, A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, and Judgment at Nuremberg.

Dietrich sang in several of her films (most famously in von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, in which she sings "Falling In Love Again"), having made records in Germany in the 1920s. Following a slowdown in her film career, she made a number of records first for Decca and later for Columbia.

From the 1950s to the mid-1970s Dietrich toured internationally as a successful cabaret performer. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Until the mid-1960s her musical director was pop composer Burt Bacharach. His arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's narrow vocal range and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect. Spectacular costumes and careful stage lighting helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.

Her show business career largely ended, however, in 1979, when she broke her leg during a cabaret performance. She spent the last twelve years largely bed-ridden, in seclusion in her apartment in Paris.

Her distinctive voice was later satirized, along with that of Lotte Lenya, in the song Lieder by cult British trio Fascinating Ada. Madeline Kahn did the same in the Mel Brooks film "Blazing Saddles".

Dietrich was known to have a strong set of political convictions and a mind to speak them. She was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised Germany's anti-semitic policies of the time. Her singing helped here too, as she recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German.

Dietrich became an American citizen in 1937 and entertained American troops during the Second World War. She is also famous for having recorded Lili Marleen during World War II, a curious example of a song transcending the hatreds of war.

Dietrich was a model whom later stars would follow. Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality. Accordingly, it is no surprise that she had affairs with women (Mercedes de Acosta was among her lesbian lovers) as well as men.

Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich's personal life was kept out of public view. She married once, to film technician Rudolf Sieber. Her only child, Maria, was born in 1925. When Maria gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed "the world's most glamorous grandmother."

Despite all of this, she was reportedly offered a king's ransom to return to Germany, possibly due to her immense popularity, which she declined. Other sources report that she quipped that she would return only when one of her Jewish friends (possibly Max Reinhardt) could accompany her.

Dietrich died at the age of 90 in Paris, of kidney failure. Her body was returned to Berlin where she was interred in the Friedenau Cemetery. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlene_Dietrich [Jul 2004]

Marilyn Monroe as Marlene Dietrich (1958) - Richard Avedon

Marilyn Monroe as Marlene Dietrich (1958) - Richard Avedon

In the fall of 1958, Marilyn posed for the photographer, Richard Avedon, in a series of interpretations of the great sex symbols of the 20th century: Lillian Russell, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. Some of these photos were published exclusively by Life magazine. Miller wote an introduction to the article entitled, My wife, Marilyn. Many have criticized Miller for the contents of this article. Regardless of what Miller said or thinks, these pictures speak for themselves. --http://home.att.net/~sallyann3/avedon.html [Oct 2004]

Richard Avedon (May 15, 1923 - October 1, 2004) was an American photographer. Avedon was able to take his early success in fashion photography and expand it into the realm of fine art. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Avedon [Oct 2004]

The Blue Angel

Marlene Dietrich gained international acclaim for her role as Lola, a temptress in the film The Blue Angel, Germany's first talkie. Directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1929, The Blue Angel earns its place in the history of Weimar for several reasons. As a cultural artifact, it illuminates character types, fashion trends, and popular social obsessions of the era. As a wellspring of symbolism, the film explores elemental themes of change, desire, and sexual power: The mesmerizing allure of unfettered sensuality clashes with conservative values of disciplined personal conduct, setting the stage for a morality play that exposes the cultural tensions and conflicting behavioral standards of the age. Beyond history, it's simply a darned good movie. --http://www.corndancer.com/vox/deutsch/lesesaal/weimar/weimar_whois/weimarwho.html

The Blue Angel (1930) - Josef von Sternberg

The Blue Angel (1930) - Josef von Sternberg [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Amazon.com essential video
For director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich it all began with The Blue Angel, one of the masterpieces of Germany's Weimar cinema. This landmark film thrust the sultry and unrestrained Dietrich on an unsuspecting international film audience. She plays the prototypical role of Lola, the singer who tempts repressed professor Emil Jannings (the king of expressionist actors) into complete submission night after night at the Blue Angel nightclub. The film perfectly captures the masochism and degradation of the Weimar Republic, just before the rise of Adolf Hitler. And yet the moral confusion exhibited by Jannings is really due to his own torment. Dietrich is merely an instrument of his innermost desires, standing on stage in top hat, stockings, and bare thighs singing "Falling in Love Again." --Bill Desowitz, Amazon.com


  1. In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic - Gaylyn Studlar [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    In a major revision of feminist-psychoanalytic theories of film pleasure and sexual difference, Studlar's close textual analysis of the six Paramount films directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich probes the source of their visual and psychological complexity. Borrowing from Gilles Deleuze's psychoanalytic-literary approach, Studlar shows how masochism extends beyond the clinical realm, into the arena of artistic form, language, and production of pleasure. The author's examination of the von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations shows how these films, with the mother figure embodied in the alluring yet androgynous Dietrich, offer a key for understanding film's "masochistic aesthetic." Studlar argues that masochism's broader significance to film study lies in the similarities between the structures of perversion and those of the cinematic apparatus, as a dream screen reviving archaic visual pleasures for both male and female spectators.

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