Jump to: navigation, search

The Times (07/May/1992) - Obituary: Marlene Dietrich

(c) The Times (07/May/1992)

Obituary: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich, screen and stage actress and cabaret entertainer, died at her Paris home yesterday aged 90. She was born in the Berlin suburb of Schoneberg on December 27, 1901.

"Though we all might enjoy seeing Helen of Troy, as a gay cabaret entertainer I doubt that she could, be one quarter as good, as our legendary, lovely Marlene" -- thus Noel Coward, introducing Dietrich to a London nightclub audience at the Cafe de Paris in 1954 by which time the star was well into her fifties and a second career. In her first career she had conquered the screens, first as Lola in The Blue Angel. Others have taken the role of Heinrich Mann's temptress, on screen and on stage a version is about to open on Shaftesbury Avenue. But none could match Dietrich. Hollywood seized her and Paramount turned her into a star. She became synonymous with the erotic: no one could light a cigarette more sensuously than she or tell, in the huskiest of voices, the boys in the backroom what they should have. Unlike most actresses who are compelled to evolve with age the image of Dietrich, once established, was amplified rather than altered as time went on. The insolent, ironic style of her youth did at one point mellow into approachability, but it re-emerged in maturer form to haunt her later performances on the screen and in cabaret. But the soul of the Dietrich secret, a quality which kept crowds queuing for her one-woman shows at an age when such a thing came to seem almost preposterous , was something, perhaps, more fundamental. Reduced to its simplist terms, Dietrich's appeal was, indeed, sex appeal. But it was a sex appeal which involved not merely the face, the million dollar legs and the air of Do Not Touch, which were all part of the armoury. Essentially, it embodied the idea of the eternal woman and like Garbo whose occupation of the same position at MGM Paramount imported her to challenge it began with beauty of an order calculated to overwhelm the senses, suspending criticism of the roles (frequently in Dietrich's case tawdry ones) represented by the actress. The crowds who later flocked to see and hear the septan Drich came not to judge the performance but simply to be part of the ambience it created.

The biggest mystery about Dietrich was, for a long time, her date of birth. This was carefully concealed and suggestions for the date ranged from 1894 through to 1912. Then the secret came out when an East German clerk located in his registry and somewhat tactlessly published the entry relting to the birth of one Maria Magdalene (hence the contraction Marlene) Dietrich on December 27, 1901, in the suburb of Schoneberg.

Marlene Dietrich was born Maria Magdalena, the second daughter of an officer in the Prussian police and a mother who came from a well-known family of Berlin jewellers. She grew up against a background of clenched social and financial respectability. A year or two after her birth Dietrich's father died and her mother married another military man, Edouard von Losch, who was kille on the Russian front in the closing weeks of the first world war, leaving his widow and her daughters in severely straitened circumstances. But her mother strenuously supported her daughter's intense desire to be a performer and she in turn remained proud of her Prussian ancestry.

By 1919 Dietrich, was enrolled in the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik, since it was thought she had a future as a violinist. Damage to her wrist put an end to that idea, an she soon afterwards auditioned for Max Reinhardt. But he gravely doubted her acting ability and her first attempt was not successful. For some time after that she worked as a chorus girl in a touring company before he eventually gave her small roles at the Deutsches Theater.

While there Dietrich, like many of her contemporaries, also began to play small roles at the UFA studios.

It was in 1922, though she often denied it, that she made her debut at the age of 21 as a maid in The Little Napoleon. For the next seven years she divided her time more or less equally between the theatres of Berlin and its film studios: on stage, guided by Reinhardt, she worked in Shaw's Misalliance and Back to Methuselah, establishing a local reputation second only to that of Elisabeth Bergner who once remarked: "If I were as beautiful as Marlene, I wouldn't know what to do with my talent."

But on screen Dietrich's talents were confined to rather less demanding or rewarding scripts until in 1929 the Austrian director who was to become her guide, mentor and guardian, Josef von Sternberg, hile searching for a Lola to play opposite Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel, saw her on stage one night. He was later to write: "There was a woman whose face promised everything. I took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections and led her to crystallise a pictorial aphrodisiac."

The success of The Blue Angel in Berlin confirmed rather than created Dietrich as a star in Germany: a year earlier she had already been sharing German movie-magazine covers with Garbo. But internationally it was the film in which she was born, and which was to characterise her forever. "What happened to you before Blue Angel?" she was once asked at a Hollywood press conference. Dietrich, who was never renowned for courtesy when dealing with the press, replied curtly and none too accurately, "Nothing".

Paramount immediately signed her to a two-picture deal and she moved to California with von Sternberg, sending only some months later for the husband and daughter with whom she had started her family in Berlin during the late 1920s.

Her first American picture was Morocco (1930) for which Paramount made her lose 33 pounds in weight. Thereafter she appeared in films ranging from such von Sternberg classics as Blonde Venus (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934) through the considerably less impressive Garden of Allah (1936) to George Marshall's great western Destry Rides Again (1939). But it became increasingly clear that with von Sternberg's determination to end their partnership in the middle 1930s the focus of Marlene's interest in cinema became blurred. Her last film with von Sternberg was Devil is a Woman (1935).

So when the war came, it was with a kind of relief that she went off around the world on extended army concert tours, beginning to work as a singer with live audiences that were to occupy more and more of her time in the second half of her career. She had rejected an offer by Hitler the only person she ever "hated" she said in her 1979 memoirs to return to Germany and become a star of the Nazi-controlled film company UFA, and in 1937 she took United States citizenship.

During the second world war she participated in the US war effort by keeping the troops' morale high as a singer in benefit performances for the US army's welfare services in North Africa, Italy and other European war theatres. This first work as a singer with the live audiences was to occupy more and more of her time in the second half of her career. Quite extraordinarily it was her version of a German first world war soldiers' song, "Lili Marlene" that propelled it to fame, in spite of the initial attempts of both British and American army authorities to have it suppressed as subversive. Her version of the song eventually made it popular on both sides of the fighting lines. "Falling in Love Again" was another huge wartime success, as popular with German PoWs as it had been with American GIs.

After the war, an affair with Jean Gabin led her back to the cinema for Martin Roumagnac, but from now on her films were to get fewer and further apart. Her next venture was Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948) a hard-edged comedy of post-war Berlin. In 1950 she starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright and Henry Koster's No Highway (1951).

But between the films she had begun to develop a cabaret talent second to none. Cocteau once said that her beauty was its own praise, and Hemingway, a lover of blondes in general and Dietrich in particular, noted: "her voice alone could break your heart". Beyond the heartbreak was the expression of an immensely theatrical talent for going out alone on stage and holding an audience with all the power of a great dramatic actress that many of her songs, from "Lili Marlene" of the second world war to "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" of the Vietnam conflict, required.

Although she worked once with Hitchcock, once with Kramer and most memorably with Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil (1958), few directors were able to follow in the footsteps of "Svengali Jo" von Sternberg. So she took to travelling more and more alone on solo cabaret. Her last cameo role was in Just a Gigolo in 1976. The "Marlene" of the 1930s, a German-American creation of von Sternberg and some excellent lightig cameramen, was gradually translated into "Dietrich", a somewhat tougher and lonelier figure who, around the world, learnt the greatest of all theatrical lessons: waste nothing. Money, time and herself were all exquisitely preserved against need, and, although sometimes cold to frosty and distant before the footlights, she passed again and again that final test of stardom the ability not just to do something, but to stand there.

Her war activities tarnished her reputation in Germany, were she was regarded as a traitor long after hostilities ceased. When she returned to West Germany in 1960 for a series of performances, she found that the image of her wearing an American uniform was still vivid in the minds of many Germans.

Her homecoming was marred by bomb threats, pickets carrying signs in English that read "Marlene Go Home" and editorials calling her a "traitor". Despite a unanimously acclaimed performance with two encores and 11 curtain calls, she said she would never return. Towards the end of her career, in concert seasons for the West End and New York and Australia through the middle 1970s, she would take centre stage, an elderly German lady with a slight limp swathed in acres of white fur. She was Dietrich, a constant reminder of the survival of the human spirit and of endurance. She was a theatrical Mother Courage without Brecht, belonging with Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf and precious few others to a band of dramatic singers who had spanned much of the century. Having her sing to you was not unlike being entertained by the Statue of Liberty. Her greatest achievement was perhaps to evoke memories and the past and then to transcend them.

As the years went on her one-woman show with its battery of the old, irresistible songs, "Lile Marlene", "Falling in Love Again" and "Honeysuckle Rose", established her beyond the reach of any criticism that might have accrued to her films. Audiences that included large numbers of women to whom she had an appeal as electrifying as she did to men packed in to see her wherever she appeared. In a way, her image regained its pristine Sternbergian remoteness (although, owing to her creator's lack of charity to her in his autobiography, she did for a while stop alluding to his contribution to her early success).

As she passed 60 and then 70, an older generation went to see her out of nostalgia for an age of elegant and beautiful women that seemed to have departed, while their children were fascinated anew by the timeless distillation of the experience of being a woman she commuicated. In the end, perhaps, the act was more and more in the nature of a carefully planned assault on the emotions, meticulously orchestrated, calculatingly lit and evocatively dressed.

But nobody minded. The idea of the woman who had ben a close friend of Cocteau and Remarque, of whom Hemingway had characteristically remarked : "The Kraut's the best thing that ever came into the ring", had long outlived its physical embodiment.

By the time the famous legs did fail and Marlene Dietrich fell on stage and broke a thigh bone in Sydney on September 29, 1975, she had passed unassailably into the legends which it is Hollywood's peculiar power to create.

She retire to her home on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Like Callas and Garbo before her, she shunned publicity and declined interviews, especially from those trying to chronicle her life in one or other of the media. "No one will ever trespass on my private world," she said and she kept to her word.

The Dietrich image was well preserved elsewhere. In 1947 she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest US decoration for civilians, for her contributions to the American war effort, and made French Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur in 1951 and Officier of the Legion d'honneur in 1972.

Dietrich leaves her only child, a daughter Maria born in 1925 to the husband, Rudolph Sieber whom she had married a year earlier and to whom she remained distantly married until his death a decade ago in California.