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Dietrich and Sternberg (Films Air 5/10)

The following excerpt about TCM Star of the Month Marlene Dietrich is from an essay published in the May/June issue of Film Comment magazine, available by subscription or individual issue.

The first films that Sternberg and Dietrich made in Hollywood--particularly Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), and Shanghai Express (1932)--raise Dietrich from the dance hall to the divine. These are films that balance on the razor's edge between devotion and doubt, and their imagery is mythic, turning Dietrich into a romantic icon, a philosopher's sex symbol. In Morocco, she stares down a hostile and then desiring crowd, disturbing the boundaries of man and woman, spectator and object. In Dishonored, she applies lipstick before facing the firing squad. And in Shanghai Express, it is Dietrich's Shanghai Lily whose act of faith restores order upon a train after it has been taken hostage, her hands illuminated in prayer even as the carriage has been shrouded in darkness.

Following the "relentless excursion into style" of The Scarlet Empress (1934), described as such by its director, The Devil Is a Woman was made after Sternberg had resolved to end the partnership. It was their only outright comedy. Where their earlier films had portrayed love as a force that could build and topple empires, in The Devil Is a Woman love was finally recognized as a farce. Commenting on the end of their association, Sternberg was uncharacteristically reserved: "There is nothing I have to say about Ms. Dietrich that I have not already said with a camera."

Using his camera as his
means of expression, Sternberg
crafted frames around Dietrich
that were littered with a
thousand artful obstructions--
curtains, doorways, furniture,
streamers. In her work with
costume designer Travis
Banton, Dietrich recommended
changes that would follow
Sternberg's lead--veils, masks,
feathers. Playing women
whose pasts were as shadowy
as their surroundings, Dietrich
established with her director the
suggestion that once an audience has been trained to spy through obstructions, even a face can appear as a mask.

In a rare moment of transparency, Sternberg wrote, "The average human being lives behind an impenetrable veil and will disclose his deep emotions only in a crisis which robs him of control." This impenetrable veil is the subject of his work with Dietrich, and once their relationship had ended and the veil had been lowered, she worked for the rest of her career to keep it drawn.

Dietrich's impenetrability was only amplified by the frequency with which she played performers. This practice began with Sternberg, but it became a signature of her style even after she had moved on to other filmmakers. Even when her characters don't take to a literal stage, she plays shape-shifters and fabulists, becoming a fortune teller for Welles (in 1958's Touch of Evil), a jewel thief for Frank Borzage (1936's Desire), a gold digger for René Clair (1941's The Flame of New Orleans). In all but her most forgettable performances--her traveling heiress in The Garden of Allah (1936) comes to mind--Dietrich's on-screen lovers were found in her audience before they could be found in her bedroom.

In one of her best collaborations without Sternberg, Dietrich was cast as a singer in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), one of the first Hollywood movies to be set in Germany after World War II. In it, she plays Erika Von Schluetow, a woman whose tip jar and boudoir are open for American soldiers and Germans alike. When she takes the stage--the spotlight starker than anything Sternberg might have used, the shadows darker, her glittering figure cutting a line against the blackness around her, her image reflecting in distant mirrors wherever she walks--Dietrich sings, "Want to buy some illusions, slightly used, secondhand?"

Though Dietrich worked with many émigrés and exiles who came to Hollywood during the Nazi era--including Clair and, of course, Sternberg--Wilder earned her particular trust. The pair were friends, with the actress often staying in Wilder's home when she needed a place to crash during her years of living abroad. The films she made with him (such as 1957's Witness for the Prosecution) reflect her comfort, and Dietrich's image found new dimensions.

In her films with Sternberg, the relationships between lovers create a private world within uncontrollable political environments, but in Wilder's worlds, lovers must still pay political consequences when their illusions are purchased for an unworthy purpose. Where the veil of persona once confounded lovers and audiences--outsiders looking for a sign of what might animate the woman we see--in A Foreign Affair Dietrich suggests that not only does love fail to unravel the mysteries that exist inside someone else, but a person might exist as a mystery even to herself.

by Teo Bugbee

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