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Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song

Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song
MGM Home Entertainment
2001 / Color & b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Interviewees: Burt Bacharach, Rosemary Clooney, Hildegard Knef, A.C. Lyles, Felix Moeller, Barney Oldfield, Maria Riva, Volker Schlöndorff, Nicholas Josef von Sternberg, Jamie Lee Curtis
Cinematography Adolfo Bartoli, Christine Burrill, Uli Kudicke
Production Designer Birgit Schulz
Film Editor William Haugse, Katharina Schmidt
Original Music Gernot Rothenbach
Written by Karin Kearns
Produced by Roger Corman, Frank Hübner, Karin Kearns, Sabine Müller, H.W. Pausch, J. David Riva, Gerhard Schmidt, Cooky Ziesche
Directed by J. David Riva

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Aptly subtitled Her Own Story, this bio of Marlene Dietrich covers her career rise, but most effectively presents her personal life beginning with WW2. Every star who participated in a USO tour deserves praise, but Ms. Dietrich's contribution was exceptional. In her later years she stressed her identity as an anti-war German expatriate, rather than a movie star. Made by a fistful of producing entities on both sides of the Atlantic, this bio doc is both revealing and reverential.

Marlene Dietrich was a flamboyant personality with a very daring lifestyle for her times. Using a narration spoken by Jamie Lee Curtis, and a Dietrich voice impersonator for some passages, the show concentrates on the glamour goddesses' private life without going too deep into her sexuality, which was always making news. Her apparently very successful open marriage with Rudolf Sieber was well known, but less so her long-running affairs with stars like Jean Gabin.

Directed by her son (or grandson?) this biodoc uses some previously unseen home movies to flesh out Dietrich's private life, and creates a compelling portrait of an honest and dignified woman. Dietrich was a very giving and concerned person, a grateful immigrant and new American citizen, and a courageous entertainer during the war. Refusing to cooperate with Nazi entreaties to return to the German film industry, Dietrich had shown her true loyalty when she applied for citizenship years before war broke out. With much of her family left behind in Germany, she worried for her mother in Berlin. Asked why she promoted a war that was bombing her mother, she reasoned that that was what her mother would want her to do.

The most convincing and wrenching part of the docu is a brief recording of Dietrich's first phone conversation with her mother, after liberation. She couldn't go to Russian-held Berlin herself, but they were allowed to talk, in English only. It's short, emotional, and shattering.

The docu has more than just the family papers and recordings. Dietrich is seen in brief movie clips (from just a few films, this isn't a detailed career story) but there are lengthy television and newsreel excerpts from her long concert career. Where previous bios might contain a still or two onstage, here we see her singing entire songs, and interviewed by Israeli and Swedish television. It's the first full portrait of the actress; it's interesting to see Burt Bacharach in an interview from the late 90s, contrasted with his earlier persona conducting the orchestra for Marlene's stage act.

Marlene's daughter Maria Riva has substantial on-screen time. Other personalities with relevant interviews to offer are Rosemary Clooney, Hildegard Knef, and Volker Schlöndorff. Jean Gabin has a lengthy presence via color home movies. In them, Marlene tends to look a little more homey, but just as glamorous.

The docu makes good use of stills, but doesn't worry too much about temporal accuracy. If the face has a useful expression, a 20s photo gets used even into the 1940s, and vice-versa. This won't bother anybody but the avid Dietrich savants out there.

All of these clips must have been complicated and expensive to gather and license. The docu has a long list of international producing entities and research staff, something that DVD viewers should consider when they ask why every DVD can't have a full documentary as an extra. 1

MGM's DVD of Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Story is a well-presented plainwrap package of the feature doc, which first showed on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. From the credits, it appears to have been made mainly in Europe, which may account for the occasional weird look to the motion of a film clip, and the odd-strobing still here and there. It looks as if film clips transferred in PAL were converted to NTSC, and the doubling of the 3-2 pulldown has garbled the motion effect in a few of them. The titles also look a bit buzzy, as if they didn't survive the conversion well either. That, coupled with the blowup to widescreen of all the film clips, makes much of the show look soft in 16:9 on a large screen. A smaller screen is more appropriate.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 14, 2003


1. Sometimes when DVD docus are incomplete or superficial, it's not because the makers aren't trying. On some big pictures, there are many terrific and relevant newsclips and tv show excerpts and existing interviews that would be of great help, but they're just too expensive, way beyond the reach of relatively small DVD extras budgets.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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