That Obscure Object of Desire 

How Josef von Sternberg found his ideal subject: the face of Marlene Dietrich

How Josef von Sternberg found his ideal subject: the face of Marlene Dietrich

The Blue Angel

dir.: Josef von Sternberg

NR, 99 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt

By the time Marlene Dietrich sauntered onscreen in 1932’s The Shanghai Express, her entrance had already been well prepared. Not just by the supporting players—one of whom exclaims, “Everyone in China knows Shanghai Lily!”—but by her previous roles. Just two years before, in The Blue Angel, she had startled viewers as a ripe, amoral tart of a cabaret singer. In her next appearance, in 1930’s Morocco, she kissed a woman full on the lips before a dazzled nightclub audience. She was already established as the screen’s most brazen sexual adventurer before she gazed from the compartment of a passenger train and exhaled the line that launched a thousand female impersonations: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

Actually, it took just one. Under the tutelage of Josef von Sternberg, her brilliant director, Dietrich transformed into the movies’ supreme embodiment of female sexual power. Beside her, other sex bombs seem weak, compromised. Marilyn Monroe is part pillow and part punching bag: Men settle into her or expect her to absorb their blows. Mae West is all talk, at least onscreen. Dietrich, by contrast, is a force. In her first film with von Sternberg, 1930’s The Blue Angel—which opens Friday at the Belcourt in a restored print—she exudes a carnal knowingness that makes her movements as languid as the smoke from a post-coital cigarette. In some ways, her coolly sensual image resonates even more strongly today.

To make The Blue Angel, its first English-language production, the German studio UFA contracted the services of von Sternberg, a hot young Hollywood director who had guided German actor Emil Jannings to an Oscar—the first ever given for Best Actor. For the role of Lola-Lola, a saloon-singing seductress who reduces a stuffy professor to squawking misery, von Sternberg showed UFA executives a screen test he had made of Dietrich. To them, she was just a bit player, a plump, awkward unknown whose few screen appearances had been decidedly clumsy. They said nein. They wanted a popular screen star named Lucie Mannheim. “You have just confirmed that I was right,” von Sternberg fumed. “Marlene Dietrich is perfect for this role.”

What did von Sternberg see in Dietrich? In her obfuscatory 1987 autobiography, she said it was her discipline and her willingness to be molded by a man she termed “the Lord of Light.” But the answer is more likely found in the seven films they made together from 1929 to 1935. Specifically, the answer is found in the director’s inexhaustible subject—Dietrich’s ever-changing face—and the luminous light and lunar shadow he cast across it. Upon this glorious screen Sternberg projected gossamer fantasies of sacrifice, abasement and desire. She reflected his light until it consumed them both.

The actress floodlit by the male director’s gaze is the most controversial and patriarchal of movie conventions. We think of Hitchcock’s succession of icy blondes, of Orson Welles chopping Rita Hayworth’s tresses, of Woody’s Diane (if not his Mia). We think of Anna Karina transfixing Godard before the camera, even as their marriage disintegrated behind it. Von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are just as intense. Under his instruction, Dietrich lost weight, learned to speak Americanized English and placed herself completely at his disposal, onscreen and off. In turn, he made her the queen of imaginary kingdoms, as artificial as the “von” before his surname. (It was added by a producer, who thought it looked classy on a marquee.) In the course of their seven movies, actress and director vanished into a realm of abstraction that grew more feverish and synthetic with each film.

The still shocking Blue Angel is the most realistic of their collaborations, perhaps because Jannings’ professor is the focus rather than Dietrich’s naughty saloon girl. The professor’s delusion is measured against the object of his passion: a round-faced, thick-waisted vixen with a mockingly earthy laugh. But he is the one who looks unnatural, inhumanly stiff. Lola-Lola, in Dietrich’s incarnation, is utterly at ease with her availability and her hunger—and most especially, with her body. The actress would later complain of how von Sternberg had tortured and contorted her to get the performance he wanted. Ironically, though, Dietrich would never again seem so unaffected, so human.

The Blue Angel established a pattern that would be repeated with variations from film to film. Dietrich, intentionally or not, would always be a heartbreaker. There would always be men to provide assistance, strings attached. “Every man who’s offered to help me has had a price,” Dietrich’s sultry chanteuse says in Morocco. “What’s yours?” The men who pursued her ended up dead, ruined or just embarrassed—but not because Dietrich’s characters deceived them. They did not see the woman, just the reflection of their own fantasies. Only a man as self-obsessed as Jannings’ professor could listen to “Falling in Love Again,” Lola-Lola’s who’s-in-my-bed-this-week theme song, and hear wedding bells. Tellingly, von Sternberg bristled when interviewer Peter Bogdanovich asked if The Blue Angel was the only time Dietrich’s character ever truly destroyed a man. “She did not destroy him—he destroyed himself,” von Sternberg retorted. “It was his fault—he should never have taken up with her.”

The Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration would culminate in two masterpieces of endless morbid fascination, 1934’s Catherine the Great biopic The Scarlet Empress and 1935’s The Devil Is a Woman. By this time, Dietrich is unrecognizable as the person who played the voluptuous young fraulein of The Blue Angel. Her face is a mask: lacquered spitcurls, eyelashes long as peacock feathers, eyebrows ascending like twin Gateway Arches. Her bee-stung lips are drawn in a permanent pout. As she casually humiliates and discards her lovers, von Sternberg watches, with dry amusement, the folly of a man trying to fix the image of his desire upon so elusive a woman.

Von Sternberg and Dietrich would not work together again, although Dietrich claimed he performed uncredited surgery on her later, lesser films. He made fewer and fewer movies, ending with The Saga of Anatahan—a seldom-shown Japanese drama of near-total abstraction, a work of cinematic origami. She, as her film career waned, became what he had made her: a nightclub entertainer, an icon of shapeshifting sexuality.

After watching their films together, it is impossible to think of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg separately. It is said that in her later films, Dietrich would begin each take with an audible, “Where are you, Jo?” Von Sternberg, for his part, responded sharply to Bogdanovich’s suggestion that there had ever been another Dietrich. “That is ridiculous,” he said. “Miss Dietrich is me—I am Miss Dietrich.” Like Miss Havisham shaping Estella for conquest in Great Expectations, he sent her into the world to win men’s hearts and to break them. We are left in their movies, beginning with The Blue Angel, to revel in the triumph and the wreckage.

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