Two decades after Marlene Dietrich’s death, her legend still retains its allure. One persistent myth is that Josef von Sternberg created Dietrich the Seductress in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), when in fact Dietrich herself had been carefully crafting her public persona long before von Sternberg. By 1929, she was already a star of stage and screen in Germany, and her first fully realized femme fatale was not The Blue Angel’s Lola Lola, but Stascha in Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt (The Woman Men Yearn For), her first top-billing.
Even as a child, Dietrich felt comfortable in the spotlight. Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in December 1901 in a Berlin suburb, she was the second daughter of a military man turned police officer and a bourgeois housewife who insisted on propriety. Nicknamed “Lene” by her family, the young girl elided her first and middle names into the more glamorous “Marlene,” writing the new name on the covers of her school notebooks. She studied violin and, at age 19, landed her first job as violinist and concert mistress with the Universum Film AG studio orchestra, which played live for films at Ufa-owned theaters. The composer-conductor later said that he fired her after only four weeks because her legs distracted the otherwise all-male orchestra.
Undaunted, Dietrich continued to put those distracting legs to good use, dancing in the cabaret shows that were ubiquitous in postwar Berlin. Not satisfied with being just another chorus girl, Dietrich decided in 1922 to enroll in Max Reinhardt’s prestigious Deutsches Theaterschule. Although she claimed to have auditioned for Reinhardt himself, it wasn’t true. According to Steven Bach’s well-researched biography, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (1992), she did audition, but for a staff member, who rejected her. She did take private lessons at the school and was soon playing small roles in the Reinhardt repertory company. She also began playing bit parts in movies, making her celluloid debut as a giggly servant in 1922’s Der kleine Napoleon (The Little Napoleon).
During this period, Dietrich met Rudolf Sieber, an aspiring actor and assistant to independent film producer-director Joe May. Sieber helped Dietrich land a few small film roles, and the two were married in 1923. Dietrich continued to work in both theater and films, taking a break when she gave birth to a daughter. The couple was very much a part of the frenetic, pansexual Berlin social life of the era, and Dietrich took both male and female lovers. When she wanted to return to work, her reputation as a party girl resulted in her typecasting as jazz babies and glamour girls.
In 1926, Dietrich had her first singing role in the revue From Mouth to Mouth, which proved to be a career changer. The actress in the leading role of Mistress of Ceremonies got sick, and Dietrich went on in her place. It led to a small but showy role as a chorus girl in the Vienna production of the American hit Broadway and an important part in the film Café Electric (1927). Critics called her “a spirited and gifted actress” and “most provocative.”
Back in Berlin in 1928, Dietrich finally became a star, thanks to both the revue It’s in the Air and the film Princess O-la-la. Reviews of the latter compared her to Garbo, and one critic wrote, “An entire generation of hollow temptresses can be dethroned by this actress.” Dietrich’s next stage appearance was in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance. The production’s leading lady Lili Darvas observed Dietrich’s ability to stand perfectly still on stage and yet be the focus of attention. “She possessed the most important quality for a Star: She could be great without doing anything at all.” It was a quality that was most effectively exploited in The Woman Men Yearn For. Bach calls the film “the first to capture her sympathetic eroticism and aura of ambiguity and mystery …. This is the film in which Marlene found ‘Dietrich,’ though she may not have known she had.”
In The Woman Men Yearn For, Henri marries a rich girl to save the family business. About to depart for his honeymoon, he catches a glimpse of a woman through a frosted train window. Their eyes lock. It is the film’s first image of Dietrich, who is traveling to an Alpine resort with her lover, and it sets in motion all that follows. Dietrich’s impassive gaze seduces with its mystery and stillness and makes credible Henri’s impulsive decision to follow her. She reveals nothing but still projects a powerful eroticism.
The Woman Men Yearn For was directed by Kurt Bernhardt, who took credit for discovering Dietrich, although she was hardly an unknown at the time. Bernhardt had absorbed the expressionist style and used it effectively in the early scenes of Henri’s family factory and in the frenzied gaiety of the New Year’s Eve revelers. Years later, he was still miffed that Dietrich ignored his direction. “She never moved her head from the spotlight …. She was so well aware of the lighting, right from the beginning.” Dietrich had been experimenting with her look in a Berlin photo booth and had found that a single overhead light accented her cheekbones and de-emphasized her upturned nose.
By the time The Woman Men Yearn For opened in April 1929, the critics were clamoring for sound. “We see the lips, they say something, they move, [but] we hear nothing,” one wrote of the little-seen film. About Dietrich’s performance, critics were brutal: “expressionless malice in every look, every movement studied, and all of it without personality,” wrote another. When the film opened in New York in September as Three Loves, the New York Times critic was more impressed: “[It] possesses the kind of direction that makes American film magnates cable contracts abroad …. In addition, it boasts of a noteworthy performer in the person of Fritz Kortner, and a rare Garboesque beauty in Marlene Dietrich.”
Depressed by the bad domestic reviews, Dietrich threw herself into work. She completed two more silent films before returning to the stage in another revue, where Josef von Sternberg saw her in September 1929 and knew he had found his Lola Lola. At first, Dietrich appeared disinterested, telling von Sternberg that she had made only three films (she had made 17) and that she photographed badly. But once the camera rolled, she was transformed. Her insolence and energy in the screen test confirmed von Sternberg’s instinct about her, and she left for Hollywood immediately after Der blaue Engel’s premiere in Berlin.
A huge Dietrich fan, Adolf Hitler tried to woo her back in the years just before World War II. He promised to make her queen of Third Reich cinema, but she refused, staying in the States where she showed a flair for comedy in films such as Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel (1937) and Destry Rides Again (1939). When she died in 1992, obituaries hailed her as the biggest international film star Germany ever produced.
In his memoirs, Edward G. Robinson, who costarred with Dietrich in Manpower (1941), wrote about her as an actress: “I am not sure I would call it talent; it is something beyond that—mystery, unavailability, distance, feminine mystique.” Dietrich herself shrugged off her image, saying “Glamour is what I sell, it’s my stock in trade,” insisting, “I am not a myth.”
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra