Mistress of Ceremonies

Mistress of Ceremonies

The stakes are high. An unknown entertainer newly arrived in a foreign country prepares for her first performance, under pressure to make a hit with a restless, rowdy audience. It is a hot night; the crowd exudes a collective humidity, faces glistening with sweat, fans fluttering in hands. Only the new performer looks cool. Alone in her dressing room, she sings to herself, smiling with self-contained amusement at her image in a hand mirror. Her man’s dress shirt and tie are as white as alpine snows. The nightclub owner comes in, an excitable, buffoonish Italian mopping his face, anxiously hectoring his new headliner. Aloof and calm, she continues her meticulous preparations: dusting off and donning a top hat, straightening her tie, slipping into a tailcoat. She strolls onstage and surveys the jeering audience inscrutably through a scrim of cigarette smoke, from under eyelids dragged down by the weight of knowingness and thick, curling eyelashes. The close-up is killing in its beauty.

Morocco (1930) was the film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to American audiences, since Paramount delayed the U.S. release of the German-made The Blue Angel (also 1930), her earthshaking first film with director Josef von Sternberg, until after her more elegant Hollywood debut had opened to rapturous acclaim. Von Sternberg carefully crafted the story of Amy Jolly, a wandering performer with a murky past, into a proscenium for Dietrich’s own presentation to America. He boldly brings her out in the top hat and tails he had seen her wear at a Berlin party, and shrewdly dramatizes the response of the audience in the movie—initially hostile but quickly seduced, led by a smitten legionnaire played by Gary Cooper—to guide the response of the film’s potentially baffled viewers to this new phenomenon.


Dietrich’s provocation goes beyond wearing men’s clothes, or even planting a kiss on the lips of a woman in the audience, who gives a shrill, embarrassed laugh and buries her face behind her fan. She assumes other masculine privileges: easy confidence, sexual authority, emotional unavailability. Even more than the casual perfection of her saunter and her offhand gestures, it is her air of not caring that sets her apart. She wears it like a perfume, like a veil, like her own special lighting.

A friend from the Berlin theater world, Hubert “Hubsie” von Meyerinck, described Dietrich’s triumph as mistress of ceremonies in the 1926 stage revue Von Mund zu Mund (From Mouth to Mouth): “It wasn’t actually anything you played or did; it was exactly the ‘nothing’ that later made you famous. Out of this ‘nothing’ born of indifference (or so it seemed) you created a style . . . and not just a style, but your Art.” Von Sternberg himself described his first sight of Dietrich in a 1929 play called Zwei Krawatten (Two Neckties) when he was desperately searching for the female lead for The Blue Angel. What struck him was her “cold disdain” for the farce and her indifference to his presence, followed by her apparent apathy and refusal to ingratiate herself at an audition. He also detected a lustrous vitality beneath this mask of restraint—and she was, in fact, fiercely ambitious—but the pose of not giving a damn, which she made challenging and seductive, was what he wanted. As Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, she gives off heat waves of eroticism and icy chills of heartlessness. Critic Siegfried Kracauer caught this quality in a review—cabled to Dietrich by her husband, Rudi Sieber, during her ocean crossing to America—that describes “an impassivity which incites one to grope for the secret behind her callous egotism and cool insolence.”

Over the course of the six films they made together in Hollywood, von Sternberg took Dietrich out of the smoke and sweat of The Blue Angel’s waterfront dive and put her in ever more exotic and lavish settings—his versions of Morocco, China, Russia, Spain, with a single detour to contemporary America (Blonde Venus). Between angel and devil, he cast her as goddess, empress, adventuress. The amoral, blithely destructive Lola Lola made way for romantic martyrs in their first four American films, then fatal temptresses in the last two. But the impassivity and cool insolence remained throughout and beyond the von Sternberg films, from the nonchalant poise with which Dietrich faces a firing squad in her second American film with him, Dishonored (1931), to her seen-it-all, sibylline detachment in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). With these qualities lingers an ambiguity distilled by that dressing-room scene from Morocco: she seems above and beyond caring yet takes infinite care with everything she does. In her work, she was a perfectionist, legendarily tireless and self-disciplined: Welles called her “the good soldier of all time.” Yet in Maximilian Schell’s often confounding 1984 documentary Marlene, she insists she never took her career seriously, and reacts with disdain verging on outrage to the notion of watching her old movies. “Look at myself? Really!” she scoffs, as though she had not toted a full-length, bulb-lit mirror to every movie set so that she could monitor her appearance. “I don’t give a damn about myself.” This stance, maintained through all the outpourings of adulation she graciously accepted—from The Blue Angel’s explosive premiere to her last concerts in the seventies, where she triumphed despite crippling pain from unhealed broken bones—made her enigmatic. She knew everything there is to know about being an object of desire—the “woman one longs for” from the title of one of her last pre–von Sternberg silents. She knew the enslaving power of remaining unfathomable and unattainable and also the degree of self-command, even self-enslavement, that is required to do so.

Shanghai Express

Control was the key to both her performing style and her persona. Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, describes in her biography the “suspended state” in which her mother would be driven from her dressing room to the soundstage, willing herself into absolute immobility to avoid marring her immaculate hair, makeup, and costume. To say that she was a superb technician should not be taken as faint praise; art depends on the ability to hit the note you hear, to trace the shape you see with a pen or your body. Dietrich was an artist whose artwork was herself; she applied virtuoso technique to the craft of becoming the image she and her director envisioned. As a performer, she bypasses the usual standards by which acting is judged; naturalism and psychological realism were never her aims. She pooh-poohed the Method, insisting that she put nothing of herself into her parts. But self-awareness and the ability to conjure illusion through external effects are just as essential to her identity as a performer as they are to her style. At times, she freely admitted, her acting was choreographed to an inner metronome: von Sternberg instructed her, for instance, to count to six and then look up. If this makes her, at her worst, mechanical—her eyelids seeming to move on springs like those of a doll—at her best she brings a deep musicality, a sense of timing, modulation, and inflection that is calibrated to an expert knowledge of lighting and camera work.

Music carried her through life. As a teenager, she studied violin with hopes of a concert career, and she got her first job as violinist and concertmaster for a movie-theater orchestra. In a PR coup, she was soon fired because her legs distracted her male colleagues. She would get less mileage out of the violin than the musical saw she learned to play in twenties Vienna, with which she would delight GIs at the front during World War II. She sang in her first sound film and her last; her musical numbers are often the high points of her films—for instance, her chilling, allure-of-the-ruins songs in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). For decades after leaving the screen, she would pack international concert halls with her spellbinding voice—that inimitable voice with its ceremonial cadences, its hard upper edge and startling plunges into caverns of velvet. It is a voice that sings when she speaks and speaks when she sings; she performs songs as if they were dramatic roles and roles as if they were songs. 

“Dietrich’s beauty is something you feel she is creating and performing—through makeup, costumes, lighting, expressions, gestures—and this makes it somehow more, rather than less, enthralling.”

This voice is one reason why, throughout the twenties in Berlin, she was more successful onstage, in musicals and plays, than in movies. The contempt with which she dismissed her silent films reveals how much it pained her to be imperfect. After seeing herself on-screen for the first time, she declared in horror, “I look like a potato with hair!” and on meeting von Sternberg she told him that no one could photograph her well, a gauntlet he gladly took up. Together, they embarked on a kind of mad experiment to push photographing well to the furthest limits of the possible. By Shanghai Express (1932), her third American film, her beauty is stupefying. At times it is hard to notice anything else. The pleasure of gazing at unusually good-looking people has always been one purpose of the movies, but the effect here is different. Dietrich’s beauty is something you feel she is creating and performing—through makeup, costumes, lighting, expressions, gestures—and this makes it somehow more, rather than less, enthralling. She seems intoxicated by her own allure, wallowing in her fabulous black plumage, veils, and haloing furs, her bespoke wardrobe of light and shadows. As the movie proceeds, the plot—a delicious chop suey of melodramatic hokum—seems ever more subordinate to her image: reclining behind gauze curtains, gazing through a window with one hand splayed on the glass, or leaning against a door smoking in a darkened train compartment. When she pulls her hair back tightly for a moment from a face sculpted by shadows, or tips her head upward and holds the cigarette in a cupped, trembling hand, the images stand alone—almost detaching themselves from the film to become the iconic series of stills that photographer Don English made of this train scene.

Ostensibly, at this moment Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is pondering the tragic irony of losing the man she loves after nobly sacrificing herself for him. Von Sternberg’s stories often give Dietrich big, dramatic moments: choosing to follow her legionnaire lover into the desert, facing execution to save the enemy spy she loves, giving up her adored child to her vindictive husband. But von Sternberg’s baroque stylization and Dietrich’s oblique mockery subvert any tear-jerking conventions. In emotional scenes, she often has a look of blank shock and numbness, sometimes with a fleeting wildness in her dry eyes—the look of someone who cannot lose control, who freezes up in the face of strong feeling. It is a limitation used to best advantage, making her seem inaccessible rather than inadequate. 

The primacy of style in von Sternberg’s films, their devotion to surfaces, can be radically irreverent. A close-up of Dietrich’s hands folding in prayer is almost blasphemous, it is so elegantly presented: the jeweled and manicured fingers rising like lilies in a pool of light surrounded by blackness. And while few films are more romantic than Shanghai Express, the real romance is between Dietrich and the camera, not Dietrich and her leading man. Clive Brook’s dour, pompous British officer, always ready to believe the worst about the woman he loves and showily nursing his sense of betrayal, is almost laughably unworthy of the sublime Shanghai Lily. It is hard to resist fantasizing about an alternate ending in which she ditches him for her fellow courtesan Hui Fei, since Dietrich shares far more chemistry with the coolly sardonic Anna May Wong.


This inequality becomes even more the subject of Blonde Venus (1932), a mother-love story that was Dietrich’s own brainchild and that matches other Depression-era women’s sagas in its audacious argument about the sexes’ responses to adversity. While men’s pride makes them brittle and weak, women are survivors, willing to do whatever it takes to keep themselves and their children going. Their identities are fluid and mutable, giving them the resilience to move past degradations and compromises. So here, the husband, played by Herbert Marshall, can’t forgive his wife for saving his life with money she got from another man, and punishes her by taking away their child. His pain should make him sympathetic—she is unfaithful, with Cary Grant, no less—but he comes off as ungrateful and self-pitying, an emotional pygmy. She, meanwhile, is a shimmering, protean sprit of the eternal feminine: a water nymph; a devoted mother and nurturing housewife; a sophisticated mistress; a world-weary prostitute; a bedraggled vagrant; a radiant performer; a force of primal sexuality with a wicked sense of humor. Convention ensures that she will wind up back with her husband, but after the magnificent scorn that she aims at his self-righteous sense of grievance, their reunion seems like an act of chivalry on her part.

Dietrich’s cryptic core makes her believable as a woman who can tuck her little boy into bed with a sweet lullaby, then go sell a nightclub number in which she strips off a gorilla suit and stands brazen in sequins, hands on hips, smiling at the absurdity of the lyrics she’s singing (“Hot Voodoo”). This woman is many women; all these women are the same woman. Within five years, Dietrich went from the tawdry, carnal Lola Lola to the exquisitely porcelain, depraved Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress (1934); from the wistful, reticent Amy Jolly to the flouncing, pouty, energetically cruel Concha Perez in The Devil Is a Woman (1935), with her taut face and eyebrows like an insect’s antennae. She could transform herself even more radically, as when in Dishonored her sleek spy goes undercover as a chubby, wide-eyed peasant wench with a scrubbed face and undignified, giggling playfulness. She is almost as unrecognizable here as in her more famous and elaborate disguise as a cockney slattern in Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957).


Even as her face hardened into a changeless, ageless mask, she remained adaptable, bouncing back from a “box-office poison” label with her rootin’-tootin’, brawling dance-hall singer in Destry Rides Again (1939). Post–von Sternberg, in films like Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936) and Tay Garnett’s Seven Sinners (1940), she revealed a warmer, funnier side of her jaded-sorceress mystique. If few stars better personify cinema’s power to turn humans into deities, few were better able to manage the drawback of this apotheosis: the tendency of audiences to resent and reject those they worship—particularly if they are women. Her durability as an icon rested on a mixture of insoluble mystery and surprising matter-of-factness; she did not so much “make it look effortless” as present the effort and artifice as part and parcel of the glamour. 

She flaunted this practical magic on USO tours when she would appear in her army uniform, duck behind a screen, and reemerge to wow the boys in a sparkling, see-through gown. Photographs documenting her World War II service—undertaken with great physical bravery and stoicism out of principled loathing for Nazism and a passionate commitment to ordinary soldiers—reveal a woman able to transfix the lens without special lighting, direction, makeup, or costumes. The wartime entertainer was her favorite role, the ultimate expression of her gallantry, her military discipline, her all-conquering charisma as a performer. She made being an object of desire into an act of heroism.

“The notion that she was his creation is one some critics have accepted all too eagerly, despite even von Sternberg’s own admission that ‘I gave her nothing that she did not already have.’”

First and last, Dietrich was a trouper, a survivor. Her five years with von Sternberg were pivotal, creating the image that made her immortal and to which she always remained true, despite the box-office failures and personal tensions that ended their collaboration. When they parted ways in 1935, she had another quarter century ahead of her in movies, including working with Lubitsch, Welles, Wilder, Hitchcock, and Lang—and appearing in her fair share of kitsch and dross. Von Sternberg’s filmmaking career never recovered. Over the years, her statements about him were consistently and extravagantly generous, crediting him as her teacher and master, with whom she’d shared “the most creative experience I ever had.” His stance toward her was far more complicated and less ingenuous, mixing admiration and appreciation of her gifts with condescension and spitefulness that smelled of festering resentment. In pre-auteurist days, critics often praised her at his expense, and for all her flattery and on-set obedience, she never let him, or anyone else, possess her exclusively. The notion—propounded by Dietrich herself—that she was his creation, his puppet, his Galatea, is one some critics have accepted all too eagerly, despite even von Sternberg’s own admission that “I gave her nothing that she did not already have.”

Their artistic and personal relationship was as richly ambiguous and ultimately impenetrable as their movies are. It is easy to read jealousy over her legendarily prodigious, omnivorous affairs into the stories of men emotionally crippled by her faithlessness, and into the ludicrous misogyny and lurid masochism of The Devil Is a Woman. It is hard not to see their last two films together as the director’s exertion of absolute power over his star—“subjugating” her, as he put it, to his artistic vision, even while grotesquely caricaturing her sexual power. There is a coldness and cruelty about these spectacles, as claustrophobic as they are opulent, but there is also a deliriously ambitious vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk to which Dietrich was more than willing to submit herself. As critics and the public, and even von Sternberg himself, turned against their partnership, she alone remained convinced of its value. She is not “subjugated”; she is fully complicit in these ravishing, mannerist, self-infatuated, and slightly mad movies.

Perhaps the best summation of all is critic John Russell Taylor’s: he called it “some kind of artistic folie à deux.” These two self-invented fantasists—the man who embellished his name with a von and his face with a mandarin mustache, the girl christened Marie Magdalene who at thirteen dubbed herself Marlene—were able, together, to realize on celluloid a creature of impossible beauty inhabiting a “universe of ineffable gaudiness,” like the one spun in the brain of James Gatz before he became Jay Gatsby.

In Orson Welles, Dietrich found another genius far too impractically devoted to his own excessive visions to suit Hollywood, and she gladly gave her services in Touch of Evil—though not, as she later claimed, for nothing. Both director and actress felt that her few brief scenes, shot in a single night, were among their finest contributions to cinema. They were whipped up at the last moment, with Dietrich putting together a gypsy outfit the way, in her earliest years onstage, she had pieced together costumes from her own overstuffed trunks. With a black wig, face stained dark, and cigarette dangling from lacquered lips, she plays Tana, the madam of a ghostly border-town brothel where Welles’s corrupt sheriff, Hank Quinlan, goes to visit his memories of a distant past. He looks like the wreck of the Hindenburg, and she peers at him and drily suggests that he “lay off those candy bars.” In the midst of a feverish movie, she is like a cold towel to the brow, bringing a welcome interlude of humor and melancholy and clear-sightedness. When she tells him his future is “all used up” and suggests he go home, her pronunciation of “ho-o-ome” is piercingly moving—the accent of a woman who, as she said late in life, had lost her country and her language. Without any backstory, she is able to suggest not only Quinlan’s past but the future of Amy Jolly and Shanghai Lily—where they would eventually wash up, tough and weary but undefeated, once their great loves burned out like cigarettes. And she does it all without really doing anything—it is again that “nothing” that Hubsie von Meyerinck described, out of which she creates not just a style but her Art.

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