Marlene Dietrich’s greatest performance — or certainly her most volcanic, bilious, and indignant — occurs in a film in which the screen deity insisted she be invisible. At the age of 80, deep into her retirement, the actress agreed to take part in a documentary about her life, to be directed by Maximilian Schell, her co-star in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Dietrich’s involvement in the project came with unorthodox conditions: Neither she nor her apartment in Paris, where Schell interviewed her and where she had been living as a near-recluse since 1979, could be photographed.
The portrait that emerged, simply titled Marlene (1984), screens at Metrograph on Friday as part of its Dietrich retrospective, also called “Marlene” — the first-name familiarity slightly incongruous for so imperious a figure — ongoing through July 8. Marlene is a shrewd summa of stardom and late-life legend-burnishing, wearily but no less admiringly acknowledging its irascible subject’s perverse genius: By sticking to the shadows in Schell’s documentary, the senescent Dietrich ensures that viewers will crave images of her from the past that much more.
It’s a diva move, one that, like most displays of hauteur, cannot completely mask its author’s vulnerabilities. Dietrich’s tetchy audio — always quick to remind Schell of the particulars of their agreement, she mentions that she was contracted for “forty hours of my blah-blah-blah” — accompanies a rich compendium of clips. The archival assemblage includes not only scenes from her most famous films (her sumptuous, delirious septet with Josef von Sternberg; Destry Rides Again; etc.) but also segments from a 1971 TV interview (“No, I never fight with anyone,” she meekly notes, a self-assessment belied repeatedly during her conversations with Schell); bits from her concert performances (“Who is talking? Would you shut up,” she demands at one gig, pique that aligns with her frequent outbursts in Marlene); and footage from one of her innumerable morale-boosting efforts for Allied troops during World War II. (Dietrich renounced her German citizenship in 1939.)
Most of the Austrian-born Schell’s thoughtful inquiries, delivered in English and German — another stipulation of the contract — are met with some version of the following, also auf Deutsch und Englisch: “It’s in my book,” “Kitsch!” “Rubbish!” “I’m not interested in the past,” “You don’t have to show me anything — I know it all,” “I don’t know what you’re after,” or “You should go back to Mama Schell and learn some manners.” However jarring and forceful Dietrich’s eruptions may be, though, her voice is tiny, high-pitched, fragile. That timbre sharply contrasts with her storied husky, honeyed contralto, still evident in David Hemmings’s Just a Gigolo (1978), Dietrich’s final onscreen performance, a five-minute cameo in which the she-titan, her face obscured by broad-brimmed hats and veils, sings the title song and chats with David Bowie.
Faced with such a stroppy interlocutor, Schell persists, remaining courtly, but not too submissive. His agony and frustration become a crucial structuring element in the documentary: Offscreen and on, he confers with his crew, for instance, about how to re-create Dietrich’s four-room Avenue Montaigne flat. That the star’s living quarters are rendered so generically — basically a high-ceilinged room with a few bibelots — typifies Schell’s discretion. According to Marlene Dietrich: The Life, the occasionally scurrilous, always absorbing biography that was written by the legend’s only child, Maria Riva, and published shortly after Dietrich’s death at age 90 in 1992, Mutti lived in semi-squalor in the eighth arrondissement, with a hot plate (on which she cooked sauerkraut) next to her bed, stained carpeting, hundreds of Kleenex boxes stacked everywhere, and various vessels, including a Limoges pitcher, used as chamber pots. At another of these meta-moments in Marlene, Schell and his colleagues fact-check their subject after she insists she had no siblings. The director doesn’t contradict her, but instead inserts a childhood photo of the actress with her elder sister, Elisabeth.
Other crabby pronouncements — “I don’t give a damn about myself”; “I never, ever took my career seriously” — are equally dubious. And yet, no matter how drunk with rage Dietrich may be, she still possesses a crystalline intelligence, evidenced in her gift for grumpy, off-the-cuff maxims like “What’s true is that what you read is untrue.” (Marlene is an excellent companion to the actress’s superlative 1962 volume of alphabetical aphorisms and observations, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC, a book she mentions to Schell at least once. Under the listing “Dietrich,” she wrote, “In the German language: the name for a key that opens all locks. Not a magic key. A very real object, necessitating great skills in the making.”)
When not exploding at Schell, Dietrich offers curiously self-abnegating appraisals. “I wasn’t erotic. I was snotty,” she recalls when discussing the films she made with Sternberg, a corpus that still inspires thralldom from spectators of all genders, excitedly responding to the star’s Kinsey scale–smashing appeal. (Dietrich’s same-sex bedmates, as you might expect, go unmentioned in Schell’s film. Her peculiar interpretation of feminism does not.) Kenneth Tynan, perhaps Dietrich’s most astute admirer, once observed that the actress “stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable.” In Marlene, she is unfilmable — and, like all screen eminences, untamable, unpredictable, completely unknowable.
Directed by Maximilian Schell
Metrograph, June 2