It’s strangely apt that this film by Maximilian Schell on the legendary Marlene Dietrich should be the cinematic equivalent of the autobiography of her great mentor, Josef von Sternberg. The latter work, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, is at once enigmatic, deliberately obfuscating in nature and extremely revealing. I’m immediately reminded of a lyric by songwriter Neil Innes: “Do you ever get the feeling that the truth is less revealing than a downright lie?”
Something of that notion is at work in both Schell and Sternberg’s cases — though Sternberg only infuriated, amused and enlightened his readers. Dietrich, on the other hand, finds a personal target in actor-filmmaker Schell, giving this fascinating film an extra edge. She agreed to his proposal to work with him on a documentary about her life and work, so long as she didn’t appear onscreen. Dietrich made Schell content himself with the use of audio recordings and a good bit of cinematic sleight of hand — along with a treasure trove of film clips. The intractable nature of his subject is partly what makes Marlene work.
She assesses her first great success, Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, by remarking, “Everyone’s sick of it, aren’t they? I can’t stand it anymore.” Interviewing her, Schell comments on the scene in Dishonored — where Dietrich’s character casually applies lipstick while the officer who is supposed to tell the firing squad to shoot her has a big pacifist speech — only to have her dismiss the scene by saying, “Me putting on my lipstick, that was rubbish … kitsch.” And so it goes.
One of the most telling moments is when Schell traps her in a lie — or a misremembering, anyway — about something not being in her autobiography, but being in Sternberg’s own. Dietrich obviously knows she’s been caught, but instead asks, “Do you have the German translation of the Sternberg book? It’s the lousiest translation ever made!” — implying that the translation is at fault, not her! (By the way, the material cited is in the American edition, too.) The woman simply would not be wrong, but her very stubbornness finally causes a picture to emerge — a fascinating look at an iconic actress who has so created herself in her own mind that the facts are not only unimportant, they simply cease to exist.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Marlene on Sunday, Aug. 21 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]