In Marlene Dietrich’s ABC, the actress’s marvelous book of bon mots and observations for any and every occasion, under the heading “Josef von Sternberg” you’ll find just one simple line: “The man I wanted to please most.” Among women who think for themselves, or even just claim to, the idea of wanting to please a man is highly unfashionable. But what if Dietrich hadn’t? There would be no Amy Jolly in a white tuxedo, wooing French foreign legionnaire Gary Cooper with a posy in Morocco; no Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express, counting — or losing count of — the number of men who helped her earn that nickname; no Agent X-27 in Dishonored, ever so glamorously clutching her black Persian cat as she readies herself for the journey to her next assignment, dressed in a dark leather pilot’s costume more fetching than any modern-day latex unitard could ever be.
The pictures Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich — seven in all, between 1930 and 1935 — are often cited as examples of von Sternberg’s obsessive, controlling nature, evidence of his need to wrest a real live woman into his version of an ideal. But the truth of the Dietrich–von Sternberg relationship is of course far more complicated. If she was his protégé, his canvas, the focus of his unapologetic objectification, she was also his muse, and the degree to which she allowed herself to be molded was tied directly to her own ambition and self-confidence. Even when Dietrich was wearing a gown, she always wore the pants.
You can see this remarkable partnership unfolding in all its glory in BAMcinématek’s “Blonde Venus: The Films of Dietrich and von Sternberg,” a retrospective of all seven collaborations between the two. Seven films is a manageable number — even if you’ve never beheld a Dietrich–von Sternberg joint before, you can quickly become expert. Or can you? These pictures, at times seemingly simple on the surface, reveal more depth, more secrets, each time you view them. The seed is planted with The Blue Angel (April 6; both the German-language and the more rarely seen English-language version will screen), the duo’s first film together, from 1930. Dietrich is the delectably fleshy cabaret performer Lola-Lola, whose flirtations lure a respectable if bumbling professor (Emil Jannings) into a life of failure and despair.
The setup is excessively melodramatic only until you see how easily it could come to pass. As of 1929, Dietrich’s career hadn’t taken off, though she’d already made nearly 20 films in Germany and had appeared frequently onstage. That’s how von Sternberg discovered her as he was scouring Berlin for the perfect — and, until Dietrich, elusive — Lola-Lola. In The Blue Angel, the chiseled-cheekbone Dietrich we would eventually come to know still looks to be swathed in tender layers of baby fat, even though she was nearly 30 at the time. The effect of this crooning, sultry nightclub cherub, serenading her paunchy professor while perched jauntily on a barrel onstage, is disarming and unsettling. She’s not childlike at all, but rather ageless, a kind of young-old (or is it old-young?) that defies time. You can see how her affections could breathe life, if only temporarily, into the dreams of this huffing, puffing, aging man.
In every von Sternberg film, Dietrich is a temptress. But she’s many different kinds of temptresses, a veritable forbidden garden of them. In The Scarlet Empress (April 10), from 1934, she plays a highly moviefied version of Catherine the Great, a Prussian-born minx who comes to be the most powerful leader of Russia. At first she’s a breathless schoolgirl, her hair a mass of bobbing golden curls. She would look ridiculous if she weren’t Dietrich. Later, Catherine overthrows her own husband, the simpleton Peter III (a creepy-as-hell Sam Jaffe, who would later go on to become a familiar TV character actor), wearing a girly soldier’s outfit that wouldn’t be out of place in a Busby Berkeley musical. On her, it’s sophisticated coup wear.
That’s because what Dietrich wears is never as important as how she wears it. In The Devil Is a Woman, (April 7 and 8), from 1935, she’s a Spanish temptress who wows Cesar Romero while wearing a mantilla of quivering black puffballs and a lace half-mask that barely hides her face. After all, why would you? In the crazy-wonderful Blonde Venus (April 9), from 1932, her Helen Faraday walks the fine line between being a devoted wife and mother and a kept woman, managing to do it all with dignity. This is the movie in which Dietrich, once again playing a nightclub performer, cavorts with a chorus line of scantily clad native cuties — while dressed in a gorilla costume. She removes the mask, tops her smoothed-back hair with an ethereal blonde Afro-wig, and steps out of her furry suit to finish up in a next-to-nothing number made of spangles and feathers. You wouldn’t call the sequence racially proper or sensitive by today’s standards, but there’s nothing else in cinema like it.
The 1932 Shanghai Express (April 4) is often considered the crown jewel of the Dietrich–von Sternberg years, and for good reason. If Dietrich’s performance was guided by von Sternberg, it also appears to spring, fully loaded, from her very soul — it’s stylized almost to the point of kabuki. In scene after scene, as “coaster” Shanghai Lily surveys the situation at hand — the dastardly machinations of shady merchant Warner Oland, the apparent indifference of her impassive ex-lover, Clive Brook — her eyes shift back and forth like a Kit-Cat Clock’s. She often appears to be aware, and perhaps ready to laugh, at some private joke unfolding inside her head. And perhaps because von Sternberg’s camera (manned by cinematographer god Lee Garmes) insists on adoring her every possible minute, she often declaims her lines to no one in particular — she speaks into space, but the effect is hypnotic and haunting rather than corny.
If she’s talking to no one, she may as well be talking directly to us, and the allure of that is irresistible. Even if von Sternberg tried to shape Dietrich, there’s never any doubt that she always knew what kind of woman she wanted to be. In her book, Dietrich writes this under the heading “Artist”: “The genuine ones are precious people with an unending stream of stimulation flowing toward you.” She knew one when she saw one.