Blue Angel will rest in the dusky shadows of a Berlin cemetery

May 15, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

Berlin -- Twilight came down Leberstrasse like a long slow fadeout at the end of a movie, and finally the flat where Marlene Dietrich was born was dark except for the flickering blue light of a television set.

The small parade of news people who had come to Leberstrasse 65 had dwindled to one photographer and a single reporter.

"The woman who lives there now said they all ask the same silly question," said Christoph Lang, the photographer. " 'How do I feel in this flat?' 'I feel nothing,' she says."

Berliners remained as ambiguous about Marlene Dietrich in death as they had when she was alive. She was to return to Berlin last night in a plain black coffin. She'd remain now in her native city, the city she left, the city where she always kept a suitcase.

"What the hell is she coming here for?" said the old man to a pair of equally elderly women at the gate of the municipal cemetery where Dietrich will be buried tomorrow. "She wasn't a German. She was an American citizen."

Many older Germans have never forgiven Dietrich for performing for American troops during the World War II, for "deserting" Germany. In the Friedenau Cemetery, small, rusted iron plates mark the graves of people from the neighborhood killed by Allied bombs. Four long rows of old stone crosses commemorate soldiers killed in World War I.

But newspapers and television have been full of Dietrich's fine-boned face and shadowed eyes. Her life has been celebrated, analyzed and consecrated since her death in Paris last Wednesday. "The Blue Angel" plays on TV like a requiem.

Christoph Lang admired her tremendously. She represents a facet of Berlin life he loves. He took photographs for a book called "Berlin: Peaceful and Rebellious," a book of history absorbed from the streets.

"I think the lady was wonderful," Mr. Lang said. "Because she left Nazi Germany. I think that is wonderful.

"That is what I think is so good," he said. "When people are bad and you leave. That is great. This lady was a true lady.

"That is what you cannot see in this house, in this flat. This is what people don't want: the truth.

"They want to be proud now that she's dead. Like a parent with a child who becomes famous, you're proud. But you don't want to know that the child was not proud of you."

Mr. Lang is a native Berliner, too. He lives a few blocks away in a neighborhood once called "The Red Island" because it was full of left-wing revolutionaries. Nazis and Communists fought pitched battles in these streets in the '20s and early '30s.

The neighborhood is quiet now and probably was when Dietrich was born here in 1901. Leberstrass 65 was built around the turn of the century when Berlin was expanding rapidly and this part of Schoeneberg district was a "better" neighborhood.

Dietrich's Prussian father is variously described as a policeman or an army officer, sometimes both. His rank seemed to get higher as the week went on. Somebody called him a general yesterday. By the time Dietrich is buried he'll be a field marshal.

Her own iron "Prussian" discipline was famous. And, in fact, she will be buried by the same funeral establishment that reburied Frederick the Great, another famous Prussian, after Communism collapsed in East Germany and it was deemed safe to return him to the Potsdam palace where he reigned.

In Friedenau Cemetery, Dietrich will be buried in a modest grave not far from her mother, Josefine von Losch, who was "beloved and always caring," according to the tombstone inscription. Dietrich was born Maria Magdalena von Losch.

The tree-shaded cemetery is lovely and well-cared-for and lushly green now in the early spring. Gray-haired men and women bobbed up and down among the gravestones this week as they cleaned and replaced winter plants with pansies and begonias and daisies.

Dietrich will lie in a narrow slot between the ivy-covered graves of one Egon Lembke and a woman named Eleonore Schulze. The graves of many of Berlin's AIDS victims are said to be nearby.

A man polishing a garden-architect's gravestone told a friend: "He'll be happy lying close to Marlene."

The burial ceremony will be private, limited to her daughter, Maria Riva, her grandson, Peter, some other family members and a few friends, which may mean as many as 150 people. The public will be allowed to file past only after the family leaves.

Several hundred journalists of one sort or another have applied for credentials. And a family in an apartment overlooking the gravesite have rented their balcony for the morning for 300 Marks, about $185.

Christoph Lang won't be there. He's not that kind of photographer, he said, as he waited outside Dietrich's birthplace for just the right light, or rather, the exact amount of darkness he wanted.

"I'm trying to make some pictures in the darkness with only some few lamps burning," he said. "If you have too much light, you see nothing, only light." He said he wanted to capture Dietrich's spirit.

"I come in the darkness," he said. "Because this darkness is the way I see her life."

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