The Birth of a Hollywood Bad Girl

Inside Criterion / Sneak Peeks — Jul 9, 2018


In her six Hollywood collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich cuts a uniquely transfixing figure, her mysterious allure accentuated by the director’s chiaroscuro lighting and lavishly stylized settings. But she does far more than just luxuriate in her surroundings: at the heart of these performances was a boldly modern, unapologetically hedonistic worldview, one that she had already begun to cultivate as a stage performer in Weimar Germany. Both she and Paramount Pictures knew what they were doing when they brought her screen persona to the U.S., positioning her as an exotic alternative to the docile female characters who typically populated American movies, and deliberately courting scandal with the same-sex eroticism and androgynous role-playing that had been regular features of her cabaret acts. As film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White explain in a supplemental feature on our just-released Dietrich–von Sternberg box set, it is this devil-may-care attitude toward sexuality that would make the actor an early pioneer of feminist and queer cinema, and an object of fascination for generations to come.