Of Marlene Dietrich's fifty or so feature film appearances, I have only seen about five or six. Whatever the film, she always contributes an exotic presence and the feeling that she has come from someplace else - somewhere mysterious and seductive. No matter what the scenario or setting, when Marlene Dietrich shows up there's no mistaking her for your mother, sister, or aunt - she's like no woman you're ever likely to know. She's cool and sultry at once. Enigmatic and unreadable, Dietrich confounds the expectations of male characters in one film after another, from The Blue Angel (1930) onward. Maximilian Schell, who co-starred with Dietrich in (and won an Oscar for) Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), understands her allure and her unique place in film history. His documentary, Marlene (1984), is assembled like one giant montage, and Dietrich lent only her voice - and not her face - to his effort.
Schell sets up his dilemma
in snatches of dialogue between himself and his editors - Dietrich
will not allow herself or her house or her belongings be filmed.
But she will speak with him - and Schell's interviews with her make
up the bulk of the film's soundtrack. Dietrich's recollections,
opinions, contrary attitude, and scrappy verbal tussles with Schell
are the heart of the picture. These remarks - alternatively
laser-sharp and rambling - are laid over with movie clips, songs from
her theatrical performances, still photos, and bits of what appear to
be semi-staged behind-the-scenes footage of Schell and crew trying to
grapple with their subject's difficult behavior and willful obstructionism.
The montage-like feel of the finished whole is totally appropriate given
the refracted nature of what is "knowable" about celebrities, especially
performers like Dietrich whose existence revolves around a very smart,
very knowing act.
What does Schell's Marlene
tell us about the star that we can't learn from other sources?
Many uncontested facts of her life are ignored here - the film is
not a biography. It is more of a record of Dietrich's attitude
toward her own life and celebrity, which she vociferously claims is
largely trivial. She seems to care nothing for her past films
or future legacy, saying that it was all just "work" that is done
now, and there's no point revisiting it. Constantly deriding
her silent films as "kitsch," one clear opinion that emerges regarding
her filmography is that The Devil is a Woman
(1935) was her favorite. (It was the last of her seven collaborations
with director Josef von Sternberg.) She says Fritz Lang was a
terror, praises Orson Welles as a genius, and that Hitchcock was impenetrable.
She says almost nothing about her co-stars, other than Spencer Tracy
whom she apparently adored. All of this is in keeping with her
sense of personal privacy - she gossips about no one and maintains
a vacuum seal on her own private life.
The only time she discusses
anything personal at all is when Schell asks whether her husband (German
film production manager Rudolf Sieber) had tricked her into marriage.
Dietrich is characteristically tight-lipped and vague - yet genial
in tone - on the subject of this odd relationship; they were married
from 1924 until Sieber's death in 1976, but only lived together for
the first five of those 52 years.
In the end, this film is more
about the filmmaking process as well as a thematic exploration of certain
kinds of desire - the erotic desire often embodied by Dietrich herself,
the desire of admirers to "know" a celebrity, and the desire of
a documentarian to break through an unwilling subject's defenses.
Schell's original intent was almost certainly subverted by Dietrich's
intransigence, and his reliance on clips and Dietrich's status as
a mysterious legend likely resulted in some different, but absorbing,
It's too bad Maximilian Schell (who I also find to be underrated as an actor, Oscar-winner though he is)
hasn't directed other films, because in Marlene he shows a
natural affinity for the interplay of complex themes and unusual visuals.
The editing here is organic, intuitive, and impressionistic. The
overall effect is like being in a film and television museum - dusty
old monitors and faded screens showing unrestored footage from a bygone
era. All of which would play into Dietrich's repeated assertions
that much of her work is either "rubbish" or "kitsch."
It was nominated for a Best
Documentary Feature Oscar and won several other awards. Marlene
could have been a staid but informative PBS-style presentation, but
Schell's film plays with some very "meta" material in a subtle
and natural way. It doesn't hurt that his subject is one of
the most colorful, difficult, and magnetic personalities in Hollywood
Maximilian Schell has given us a fitting tribute to one of the greatest and most enduring film icons. Complex and uncompromising, Marlene Dietrich's stubborn, willful romanticism - and obvious contradictions - are the fertile ground upon which Schell constructs an involving, meditative film study. The technical aspects of this DVD release are most disappointing, but Marlene is still recommended.