In the 1980s, Marlene Dietrich was a virtual recluse. When people think of reclusive stars, Greta Garbo is likely the one who first comes to mind, but Dietrich was just as reclusive as Garbo, if not more so. Dietrich spent most of the 1970s performing her one-woman stage shows, but that all came to an end in 1975 when she broke her leg during a show in Australia. She made one more film at the age of 77, 1978’s Just a Gigolo, before disappearing from the public eye.
She lived in her Paris apartment until her death in 1992, allowing only a very select group of employees, family, and friends to see her. Her Judgment at Nuremberg co-star Maximilian Schell worked his way into that inner-circle long enough to interview her for a documentary simply titled Marlene.
Schell had been trying to convince Dietrich to participate in a documentary about herself for years, and she finally relented in 1982. Her only condition was that he was not allowed to film her or her apartment, he could only use audio recordings of their interviews. Schell found this very limiting and at one point in the documentary, an assistant reads from a letter he wrote to Dietrich in which he states that this documentary couldn’t be done using only still pictures and old clips. But clearly, that letter was un-sent and Schell does make do with still pictures, video clips, and a reconstruction of her Paris apartment. I believe he went into the interviews thinking he could charm her into changing her mind, but Dietrich saw right through him. During the interview, he continued to bring up the fact that he wanted to film her or her apartment and she swiftly shot him down each time. She claimed she had already been photographed to death and she simply doesn’t want her apartment filmed.
Interviewing Dietrich was no easy task for Schell, she was remarkably difficult to work with. First, Dietrich is frustrated that Schell doesn’t want to discuss things in chronological order. Then throughout the interview, Dietrich is extremely careful to not truly reveal very much about herself. She often doesn’t want to answer questions and instead wants people to read the book she wrote.
Dietrich frequently lies and tries to spin her own version of history to better suit her image. At one point, she claims to have been an only child, which isn’t true at all, she had an older sister. Regarding her involvement in World War II, she says renouncing her German citizenship was an easy decision. The truth is that she struggled with the idea of turning her back on her nationality, even though her nationality was connected to something she truly hated and despised. Near the end of the documentary, Schell is so frustrated by Dietrich that he walks out on her. Dietrich tells him to go home to his mother.
Perhaps most frustrating is Dietrich’s total disinterest in discussing her films, which she often dismissed as “kitsch.” She doesn’t understand why people still want to talk about The Blue Angel and is actually far more interested in talking about her screen test for The Blue Angel. Schell says the screen test has been lost, but it has since been found:
Schell gets Dietrich to briefly discuss one of her silent films, The Tragedy of Love. She wanted to talk about her silent films even less than she wanted to talk about The Blue Angel and dismissed her performance in The Tragedy of Love as terrible. When Schell finally gets her to watch clips of some of her films, she calls The Devil is a Woman the best “because it’s the best film.”
She thinks talking about her movies critically is absurd, she doesn’t want to discuss how she approached different characters. She says she never took her career seriously and she claims to never watch her movies. Her claims that she didn’t take her career seriously are, once again, an attempt to rewrite history. She certainly did care about her image, hence why she really didn’t want to be filmed, and she was devastated when she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Witness for the Prosecution. Dietrich wasn’t 100% negative on her career, though. She expressed great fondness for her Marlene singt Berlin-Berlin album and thought this scene from Morocco was interesting:
Now, I’m sure I’ve made this documentary sound rather awful. After all, who wants to listen to a twisted version of history, especially when the subject doesn’t even really want to discuss what made her famous in the first place? The truth is, Marlene is a riveting and fantastically edited documentary. But what makes this documentary so fascinating is that in spite of Dietrich’s attempts to reveal little, the end result is more revealing than it would have been had she simply answered the questions.
It has a bit of an unusual structure which gives Schell opportunities to provide insight. When Dietrich claims to be an only child, Schell immediately dispels that myth. Before he starts playing clips of Dietrich’s films for her, he says her agent slipped him a note that read, “There is no greater pain than the recollection of past happiness in times of misery.” Throughout the interview, Dietrich claims she isn’t sentimental and derides Schell for being a dreamer, but at the end is brought to tears when she and Schell recite a German poem. She calls the poem “kitsch”, but it reminds her of her mother, who loved the poem.
Marlene is essential viewing for Dietrich fans. If you really want to get to know Marlene Dietrich, I recommend seeing this documentary along with the documentary Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song and reading her daughter Maria Riva’s book. Maria’s book and Her Own Song both offer lots of insights from the people who knew her and Her Own Song draws heavily from Dietrich’s own letters, diaries, and telegrams. And although Dietrich often tried to revise history in Marlene, she is just as often spot-on and honest. She recalled her Blue Angel screen test remarkably well over fifty years later and is quite blunt when talking about her directors, lovers, and a multitude of other topics.
Marlene is now available on DVD from Kino Lorber. Although the documentary itself is wonderful, the DVD is sorely lacking in extra features and that makes it a little overpriced. I’m glad I waited for it to go on sale.