The sultry masterpiece Marlene Dietrich: alluring on screen, flinty and wise in life APPRECIATION

May 07, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

When God created women, most of us will agree, he did a pretty good job. But when God created Dietrich, he really topped himself. And whoever said he was not merciful? He let her stay among us for 90 years, until yesterday when he could wait no longer and insisted that she join him.

He created her sometime just after the turn of the century, although in her ever-mysterious way she shielded us from knowledge of the exact date. It was somewhat rudely alleged by an East German clerk who located a birth certificate that she was born in 1901 in Berlin, the daughter of an East Prussian officer who died when she was a child, and that she was raised by an aristocrat named von Losch, a cavalry lieutenant who died in the First World War.

It is further asserted by various authorities that after a wrist injury precluded the possibility of a career as a concert violinist, she began her acting career in the hysterical welter of the Weimar Republic in the '20s, where, eventually, she built an unremarkable career as a somewhat plump German fraulein, in a cinema that was at that time full of plump German frauleins. Her fame, such as it was, was regional.

This is almost certainly true. However, it is infinitely more satisfying to imagine that she was simply zapped into existence at the age of 29 by a celestial thunderbolt in the form that would become one of the great cinema icons of the century: sultry, sloe-eyed, incredibly knowing in that peculiar Continental way, the blond Venus, the devil as a woman of a million dreams.

Actually, the hurler of that thunderbolt was the Viennese-American director Josef von Sternberg, who chose the zaftig young woman from off the stage, plucked her brows, brutalized her into shedding 30 pounds, and found the right lighting technicians to liberate the planes of her face. And so the new Marlene Dietrich appeared on screen in 1930 in "The Blue Angel."

The movie is one of those puritanical fables (derived from a novel by Heinrich Mann and filmed in both English and German for a joint UFA-Paramount release) that demonstrates the evils of lust, as if it were humanly possible to do anything about the evils of lust. Emil Jannings, a great, florid sweatbox of pious rectitude, plays a high school professor who regularly lectures his boys on self-control, discipline, morality, those wonderful Teutonic virtues. Then he takes one look at Dietrich's Lola-Lola, and he's lost. Color him gone. Whatever Lola-Lola wanted, Lola-Lola got, including the soul of Herr Professor. She toys with him as a cruel child might toy with a bug on a pin, allows him to marry her, and then slowly humiliates and destroys him.

"Dietrich," observed Variety that year, "as a cabaret girl of liberal morals with those Continental soubrette costumes of much stocking, bare limb and garters, is an eyeful."

The film was an instant hit, but it turned out that offscreen, it was von Sternberg who wanted Lola-Lola and got her. He swept her up and took her to Hollywood. Her husband and daughter were minor annoyances, quickly forgotten for the time being (though she never divorced).

In Hollywood, von Sternberg played Svengali to the young German actress, essentially reinventing her. The result was a streak of sustained brilliance nearly unequaled in film culture. Von Sternberg and Dietrich turned out dark masterpiece after dark masterpiece between 1931 and 1935, where before she became her legendary self she was billed as Paramount's answer to MGM's Greta Garbo. The films were "Morocco," "Dishonored," "Shanghai Express," "Blonde Venus, "The Scarlet Empress," and "The Devil Is a Woman."

There even came a time when Mrs. von Sternberg, acutely peeved at the attention her husband was squandering on his creation, sued the actress for alienating her husband's affections. She lost the case. Still, von Sternberg, a somewhat erratic man, left Hollywood for England and began what was to become a peripatetic career, and one that never quite reached the heights it had over those four Dietrich years.

The movies cemented, however, the Dietrich persona: part of it was that her face, with its high cheek bones and almond-shaped, wise and mysterious eyes, was revealed in Hollywood's back-lot lighting schemes to be infinitely alluring and provocative, yet never quite conventionally beautiful. She had Garbo's enigmatic quality, but retained a paradoxical suggestion of kindness.

Part of it was her voice, husky and dense and slow, that seemed to suggest whiskey, cigarettes, doomed lovers, valor and the loneliness of 2 a.m. in a big bed all by yourself. Hemingway, who said she was "the finest ever to step out of the ring" (his idea of a compliment), said "she could break your heart with her voice." She may have broken his, though both insisted the relationship was purely platonic.

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