(Michael Wood’s article appeared in The London Review of Books, 12/17.)
I had misremembered The Scarlet Empress (1934), one of the thirteen Marlene Dietrich movies currently showing at the BFI. Or rather, I remembered vividly its latter stages, when Dietrich, playing the future Catherine the Great, rides her horse up the steps of a palace dressed as a Cossack in white fur and uniform, and demonstrates a ruthless appetite for rule. I had retained only the vaguest notion of the long first part, when Dietrich is an innocent child, a sort of babe in the Russian woods by way of Prussia. Of course, my failed recall is more than a little overdetermined. How could Dietrich ever be innocent? Even when she is playing the child part she asks: ‘When I grow up, can I become a hangman?’
The Scarlet Empress was the sixth film Dietrich made with Joseph von Sternberg. They made seven together between 1930 and 1935, the first in Germany, the others in the US. Sternberg said she attracted him with her ‘cold disdain’, her lack of interest in what she was supposed to be interested in. And it’s worth recalling the answer she once gave to a question about sex. Men demand sex, she said, and one has to comply from time to time, but ‘one can also do without.’ Man kann auch ohne. Do without men, that is, or without sex. The remark is interesting not so much for its truth or falsehood as for its bravura. It is a declaration of independence from a common form of unfreedom, what a song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill calls ‘sexual bondage’. So, when we think of Dietrich’s films, innocence is not the first word that comes to mind. But there is something unmarked about her persona, as if the ironic wisdom her characters often express comes from an infinite experience that left no trace.
Partly this is an effect of the writing. In Shanghai Express (1932): ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.’ A pretty good line in itself – Jules Furthman’s – but Dietrich manages a further implication: if she hadn’t wanted to change her name, she wouldn’t have done, no matter how many men were involved. In the same film, when her companion Warner Oland says, avuncularly, that in time she’ll weary of him, she says: ‘I’m weary of you now.’
It all starts with The Blue Angel (1930). Lola Lola is a nightclub singer who drives an old schoolteacher crazy, but she can’t help it. At least that’s what she says in the song ‘Falling in Love Again’: ‘Men flutter to me like moths around a flame/And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame.’ In the original German version she doesn’t say anything about falling in love again, or even for a first time. She says she’s made of love from head to toe, meaning some combination of sex and lethal magic. When she first sings the song, she looks relaxed and amused. When she sings it again something harsher has entered the performance, a form of denial perhaps. She doesn’t want to think about what she can and can’t help. Dietrich was still singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ forty years later as part of her live act. She stopped performing in 1975 and died in 1992.