I first learned about Marlene Dietrich upon visiting the Berlin Film Museum last year. I quickly found out that she is one of the coolest people that has ever graced this earth, and more people need to know her name.
Marlene Dietrich, born Marie Magdelene Dietrich, was born in Berlin, Germany in 1901. From a young age, she knew she wanted a life in the arts. However, her teenage dream of being a musician, especially a violinist, grew unappealing, and she searched for purpose elsewhere as a model and actress. She landed several small parts in the theatre, but was disappointed by a rejection from the Max Reinhardt Acting Academy. However, things started to turn up when she started acting for the big screen, starting with a few silent era flicks, and eventually becoming a star in several “talkies.” After being cast in a film called The Blue Angel (1930), she uprooted her life in Germany, and move to Hollywood to make it big as an actress.
Once in the US, she was contracted with Paramount Pictures to make several movies throughout the 1930’s. She quickly became known, and is still remembered today, for her sex appeal and roles as a femme fatale, or “vamp.” Dietrich became a celebrity in the states, and even received an Academy Award for her role in Morocco (1930). She married a man from the film industry, Rudolph Sieber, with whom she had one daughter. However, she later separated from him to pursue various other romantic entanglements. Marlene enjoyed personal affairs with both men and women, and was openly bisexual. Surprisingly, this only seemed to increase her favour with the public, who saw her as an absolute goddess.
Besides being a movie star, she was also a pioneer of fashion. Dietrich explored many types of dress, and particularly enjoyed sporting traditionally masculine looks. She cultivated an androgynous appearance that led theatre critic Kenneth Tynan to describe her as follows: “She has sex, but no particular gender. She has the bearing of a man; the characters she plays love power and wear trousers. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.” Dietrich was an all-around trendsetter, pushing the envelope for what was accepted in American society at the time.
Like many other Germans in the film industry at the time, Dietrich was asked to return to her home country to make films for the Third Reich. Essentially, she would have been handsomely paid to star in Nazi propaganda films (a side note: many stars at the time were grandfathered in to propaganda films due to contracts made before the Third Reich’s rise to power. Thankfully, Dietrich avoided this fate). In fact, Hitler himself called for her return to German film, but she declined his request, and called him an “idiot.” As an avid resistant of the Nazi regime, she decidedly refused, and even renounced her German citizenship, choosing instead to become an American citizen.
Not only that, but she is recorded to have travelled across the US in 1942, and sold more war bonds than any other celebrity. According to The Women’s History Museum, “some historians have estimated that the US government was able to raise over a million dollars from the purchase of war bonds due to Dietrich’s efforts.”Additionally, according to Biography.com she actively spoke out against the Nazi regime in German broadcasts, and agreed to sing songs in German for the US to “demoralize” Axis troops over the radio. Of course, this led to her home country rebelling against her and work. In Germany, her work was even banned it for a period of time. Of course, after the war, the country later re-embraced her and apologized for any hatred she experienced from various tours in Germany.
But that’s not all Marlene did. Dietrich also was a committed performer to the Allied forces via United Service Organizations tours from the year 1943 through 1945. During this time she made over 500 appearances to Allied troops internationally. She even travelled to her own home country of Germany, where she was outwardly unwelcome in wartime, to sing songs and provide entertainment for the troops. Conditions in these tours were often horrendous, with The Women’s History Musem noting that “in some instances, Dietrich performed without power, slept in tents, and worked very close to the frontline.” Nevertheless, Dietrich was committed to putting on a good show, and was later even awarded the Medal of Freedom from the United States government for her efforts, as well as a few other awards worldwide.
After the war, Dietrich continued to act, but her career in film slowly faded with the rise of her singing career in the mid-1950’s. She travelled through the US, France, and even returned to Germany to perform her music.
Throughout her life, Dietrich was always an artist. She had an autobiography published in 1960 called Dietrich’s ABC. Even after her absence from the camera in the 1970s, she continued writing. However, the end of her life was spent alone in Paris where she lived until her death in 1992. Many years after her death, a film about her life entitled, Marlene (2000), was directed by Joseph Vilsmaier was released. She is also well documented in the Berlin Film Museum, and continues to live immortally on the silver screen where she truly came alive.
Notable Films with Marlene Dietrich:
- Morocco (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg, co-starring Gary Cooper, a woman stuck between a bad boy singer and a wealthy mystery man
- Shanghai Express (1932), directed by Josef von Sternberg, a dramatic romance about rekindled love on a dangerous train journey
- Desire (1936), directed by Frank Borzage, co-starring Gary Cooper, a romantic comedy about a jewel thieving heist
- A Foreign Affair (1948), directed by Billy Wilder, Dietrich plays a rumored Nazi-mistress now apparently involved with an American soldier
- Touch of Evil (1958), directed by and starring Orson Welles, a noir exploring the after-events of a car bomb explosion right across the border from Mexico to the U.S.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Marlene Dietrich.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Feb. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Marlene-Dietrich.
Kelly, Spring. “Marlene Dietrich.” National Women’s History Museum, National Women’s History Museum, 2017, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/marlene-dietrich.
Biography.com Editors. “Marlene Dietrich Biography.” The Biography.com Website, A&E Networks Television, 20 Aug. 2019, www.biography.com/actor/marlene-dietrich.