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Blonde Venus

The mystique of Marlene Dietrich

By David Lehman | March 6, 2021
Marlene Dietrich and Paul Porcasi in Morocco, 1930 (Everett Collection)
Marlene Dietrich and Paul Porcasi in Morocco, 1930 (Everett Collection)

Marlene Dietrich musically summarizes her mystique in a couplet she sings in one of her movies: “Be careful when you meet a sweet blonde stranger / You may not know it, but you are greeting danger.” With the looks of a goddess—she is the eponymous Blonde Venus in the 1932 movie of that title—Dietrich gives off the scent of sex as a kind of combat, involving struggle, conquest, surrender, and perhaps turnabout. Among men whose lust overcomes all restraint, she does more than hold her own. She is the enchantress who can consume her mate in the very act of love.

Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in Berlin on December 27, 1901, Marlene was electric from the time she stepped forth in her first film, Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), as a cabaret singer feeding the fruit of knowledge to a frumpy schoolteacher (Emil Janning) whose loss of innocence costs him everything. In Hollywood, she worked with directors von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles. She spoke English in an accent all her own, with traces of German, schoolgirl British, and a sexy lisp. She took pride in having slept with three Kennedy men (Joe Sr., Joe Jr., and JFK), and there’s a lot more gossip where that came from.

For nearly two decades, Greta Garbo and Dietrich were one-two in virtually all international blonde-bombshell competitions. The Swedish Garbo (“I want to be alone,” as she says in Grand Hotel) was a recluse. Dietrich was not. Garbo—the code name of the Allies’ most celebrated secret agent in World War II—radiated melancholy and mystery. Dietrich embodied insolence. Garbo played the lead in Anna Karenina, a role that wouldn’t have suited Dietrich, who in Blonde Venus is a cabaret singer who lands on her feet in Paris after her beloved child is taken from her. In “You’re the Top,” Cole Porter rhymed “You’re the National Gallery” with “You’re Garbo’s salary” as a superlative. In “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Lorenz Hart said that the lady in question “isn’t Garbo, isn’t Dietrich, / but a sweet trick.”

Marlene’s eyes say she’s seen it all and a lot of it was lousy. Her audaciousness and beauty make her the object of desire of men and women across the sexual spectrum. Dressed in a man’s suit, tie, and shirt with French cuffs, she holds an unlighted cigarette between forefinger and thumb, waiting for you to light it with your Lucifer. And you will. In a nightclub in Morocco (1930), she sports a top hat and tails when she sidles over to an elegant woman and kisses her on the mouth.

Several notable aphorisms have been attributed to Dietrich, from “A country without bordellos is like a house without bathrooms,” to “In America, sex is an obsession; everywhere else, it’s a fact.”  She also once said, “I am at heart a gentleman.”  Marlene (1984), Maximillian Schell’s documentary consisting largely of the director’s conversations with Dietrich, is must viewing, in part, oddly enough, because she refused to be photographed for it. What we hear is the distillation of hours of unrehearsed dialogue, which veers from fencing match to tender reminiscence; what we see are film clips and stills. The effect is remarkable.

Dietrich sang in three languages with a distinctively husky voice that made up in sheer sexual horsepower what it lacked in vocal range and strength. Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt, from The Blue Angel, is even better in German than in the English version that begins “Falling in love again, / Never wanted to.” She made that song seem autobiographical, the story of an oversexed lady who can’t help herself; it’s her nature. The song belongs to her as “Over the Rainbow” belongs to Judy Garland; anyone else singing it is competing with a ghost.

“If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it,” Ernest Hemingway said, and to understand Dietrich’s allure, you need to hear her sing.  A playlist should include “The Laziest Gal in Town,” “You Go to My Head,” “La Vie en Rose,” “When the World Was Young,” “Ich bin die fesche Lola” and Charles Trenet’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”1

In Destry Rides Again (1939), in which James Stewart plays her romantic partner, Marlene brings down the house when, playing the part of the saloon singer in a cowboy town, she instructs us to see what the boys in the back room will have, “and tell them I sighed /and tell them I cried / And tell them I died for the same.” Frank Loesser, best known for Guys and Dolls, wrote the wonderful lyrics.

Dietrich is Circe mixed with Carmen, confident, arrogant. The man who does things to her heart is the man “who takes things into his hands—and gets what he demands.” The strong, silent type, “by moonlight, under a big palm tree.” In other words, as she sings in The Blue Angel, “Ein Mann, ein richtiger Mann!” That raspy, intimate, seductive, threatening voice challenged or dared the manliness of any man: to impress her, you’d pretty much have to be John Wayne, whom she played opposite three times, or Gary Cooper, her co-star in Morocco and Desire (1936). In Witness for the Prosecution (1957), she affects a “ducky” English accent to give Tyrone Power an alibi. The ingrate thought he could double-cross her. He thought wrong.

From the time the Nazis rose to power, Dietrich staunchly opposed them. Like baseball player Moe Berg, chef Julia Child, and Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg, she was one of the unlikely recruits assembled by Bill Donovan for the OSS, the World War II predecessor of the CIA. For the agency’s morale division, she recorded an English version of the immensely popular German song “Lili Marlene,” as if to take it away from the enemy. While the song appealed to soldiers on both sides, it was the translated version that the tireless star sang to entertain half a million Allied troops on her heroic tours of war stations in Europe and Africa.

At 70, Dietrich gave a triumphant one-woman stage show in London reviving her signature songs. She lived to a grand old age (91) and died in Paris on May 6, 1992. In her movies, she had the power to witness destruction without blinking. In Touch of Evil (1958), she read Orson Welles’s palm and knew his future was a blank card. And she kept a straight face while telling him.

Dietrich added something vital to every film she was in, from Stage Fright (1950), a second-tier Hitchcock effort, to Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), where, as the widow of a German general executed by the Allies, she spends quality time with Spencer Tracy, a judge at the trial of accused Nazi war criminals. “We hated Hitler,” she tells him. In my own allegorical understanding of that film, her character, a magnificent proud ageless blonde who claims that the populace didn’t know about the death camps,  stands for nothing less than Germany herself.

1. “What Remains of Our Love” would be a literal translation of the Trenet song. An English version, which Dietrich sang on the London stage in 1972, is called “I Wish You Love.” The English version of “Ich bin die fesche Lola” begins, “They call me naughty Lola, / the wisest girl on Earth / At home my pianola / is played for all its worth.”

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