“The Germans and I no longer speak the same language.”
— Marlene Dietrich in 1960 after a sometimes stormy reception in her native
Germany. (Quoted in Blue Angel by Donald Spoto.)
Starting with her breakthrough role as the sultry, unfaithful cabaret singer Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) in 1930, Marlene Dietrich, the “Kraut” (as Ernest Hemingway called his pal), went on to make film history with her alluring looks in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), Destry Rides Again (1939), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). In a varied career of acting, singing, and dancing, Dietrich conquered Las Vegas and Broadway in the 1960s, and went on a world tour in the 1970s. Over a period of several decades Marlene Dietrich was the ultimate Hollywood woman of mystery and a symbol of erotic allure for several generations of moviegoers.
She was born December 27, 1901 in Schöneberg (now part of Berlin) as the second daughter of Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing. (Most people never knew that Marlene had an older sister, Elisabeth, and they were unlikely to ever learn about it from Marlene.) Herr Dietrich was a police lieutenant, and his newest daughter was born in their modest apartment at Sedanstraße 53 (now Leberstraße 65). The future film star, who would later declare, “When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it,” was given the angelic name Maria Magdalene. Her family called her Lene (LAY-na) or Leni and this may have influenced her when at the age of only thirteen she cut out the center part of “Maria Magdalene” to form the unique name Marlene. She would later use this childhood creation to identify the budding film star who was to be known around the world as Marlene Dietrich.
In 1907 Marlene’s father died when she was only five. She and her sister were raised by her mother. (Wilhelmina was later married briefly to Eduard von Losch, giving rise to biographic confusion over Marlene’s surname, which was always Dietrich.)
From the beginning, Dietrich was a rebel, running counter to what people expected and social mores. Later she was a married woman (until husband Rudi Sieber’s death in 1976) who spent little time with her husband and had numerous affairs with both men and women throughout her film career. Thanks to her daughter Maria (Sieber) Riva (who gives Dietrich a low rating as a mother), Dietrich became a grandmother in 1948, with her still-alluring picture adorning the August 9th cover of Life magazine. She often dressed as a man and sang in films and on stage in a style that could be interpreted as lesbian or bisexual at a time when such things were just not done. (This was no doubt influenced by her life in the wild and woolly Berlin of the 1920s.) But Dietrich, even as a child, had a certain aura and strength of character that often made people overlook her flaws and excesses.
*Dietrich’s Gravestone Quotation
The inscription on Dietrich’s headstone is adapted from “Abschied vom Leben” (“Farewell to Life”) by Carl Theodor Körner (1791-1813), a sonnet written during the night of June 17-18, 1813 as the poet lay wounded in war and expecting to die.
First verse in German and English:
Die Wunde brennt, die bleichen Lippen beben,
Ich fühl’s an meines Herzens mattem Schlage,
Ich stehe an den Marken meiner Tage!
Gott, wie Du willst! Dir hab ich mich ergeben.
My deep wound burns; my pale lips quake in death
I feel my fainting heart resign its strife,
And reaching now the limit of my life,
Lord, to thy will I yield my parting breath!
Dietrich’s cemetery: 3. Städtischer Friedhof (Waldfriedhof in Friedenau), Stubenrauchstr. 43-45, 12161 Berlin (Also see this GW page: Famous Graves: Dietrich.)
Dietrich in Hollywood
After her arrival in Hollywood with Blue Angel director Josef von Sternberg, the two made a series of successful pictures together. Dietrich starred in such notable films as Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). (See a Dietrich filmography below.) After the two went their separate ways, Dietrich had a rough patch before regaining her footing once again as “Frenchy” in the Western comedy Destry Rides Again (1939) opposite Jimmy Stewart.
Dietrich became a US citizen in 1939. As a USO entertainer in World War II, often in uniform and near the front, Marlene displayed her devotion to her adopted country. She seemed to thrive on entertaining the troops and cavorting about in uniform. (See the photo above.) But this patriotic act was perceived by many in her native land as treason (ignoring the fact that Dietrich was anti-Nazi, not anti-German). In 1947 Marlene Dietrich received the US Medal of Freedom for her war efforts.
In 1960, for the first time since leaving Germany 30 years before, she performed on stage in her hometown of Berlin. She drew a mixed reaction of adulation and “Marlene Go Home!” As a result, she firmly refused to return to Germany until after her death. (“The Germans and I no longer speak the same language.”)
All this colored several attempts to honor the exiled actress by naming a Berlin street for her in the late 1990s. Even her home district of Schöneberg refused to rename a street for her! That only became possible with the construction of the new Potsdamer Platz complex, where a small square (rather than a street) was officially dubbed Marlene-Dietrich-Platz in February 1998. (See photo.) On the occasion of Dietrich’s 100th birthday in 2001, the Berlin government officially apologized for its past snubs, but amazingly there were still protests when the Berlin-born star was postumously made an honorary citizen of Berlin on May 16, 2002.
In her seventies, problems with those famous Dietrich legs, other health concerns, and obsessive vanity led her to withdraw from public view. Her last stage appearance was in Sydney, Australia in September 1975 when she fell and broke her left leg. Dietrich made her last film appearance in Just a Gigolo (1979) at the age of 77 — lured back into a studio by $250,000 for two half-days work. Thirteen years later, a sad recluse, alcoholic, and a prisoner of her own legend, Marlene Dietrich died in Paris at her Avenue Montaigne apartment in 1992. She is buried in her native Berlin. Her vast memorabilia collection was acquired by the city-state of Berlin in 1993 for 8 million marks ($5 million). Many objects from the collection are now housed in a special exhibit at the Film Museum (Deutsche Kinemathek) in the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz in the German capital city.
DIETRICH AND BERLIN
Marlene Dietrich and Berlin did not always get along well together. She was born in Schöneberg when it was still a separate town, not a part of Berlin as it is today. For many years after that she grew up and worked in Berlin. Things went relatively well – until Adolf Hitler and his Nazis took over in Germany in 1933.
Dietrich had recently had her first great film success starring as Lola Lola in the German production The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel, 1930), filmed in both German and English versions. She and director Josef von Sternberg had gone to Hollywood, where they were enjoying even more success as the Nazis came to power in Germany. Dietrich became a US citizen in 1939, the year that World War II began.
Even though the Nazi government tried to get her to return to Germany, Dietrich adamantly refused to have anything to do with the Third Reich. And that was the beginning of her falling out with many of her fellow Germans.
Over the years, Dietrich’s hometown and the Germans have come to terms with the German-American actress. It only took 65 years (since the end of WWII), but finally in 2010 Berlin had reached the point where the city (and the Deutsche Kinemathek film museum) could bestow the honor upon Marlene Dietrich of giving her the very first star on Berlin’s new Boulevard of Stars.
See a Dietrich filmography of her most notable Hollywood pictures below.
SELECTED HOLLYWOOD FILMS
Der blaue Engel | The Blue Angel (1930)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg in Germany, this film made Dietrich world famous. Like many early sound films, it was filmed in two versions: German and English. Her next film, Morocco, would be made in Hollywood — also with von Sternberg.
DVD > Buy Der blaue Engel (with English and German versions)
Director: Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich’s first Hollywood film, with Gary Cooper.
DVD set: Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection (5 films, including Morocco)
Director: Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich as a peasant.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Director: Josef von Sternberg.
Blonde Venus (1932)
Director: Josef von Sternberg.
DVD set: Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection (5 films, including Blonde Venus)
The Song of Songs (1933)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Country orphan Lily (Dietrich) goes to Berlin to stay with her aunt and finds romance.
The Scarlett Empress (1934)
Director: Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich as Catherine the Great.
The Devil is a Woman (1935)
Director: Josef von Sternberg. With Cesar Romero. Devil was not a big hit, but a 1975 Italian remake was a true disaster. Dietrich’s last film with von Sternberg.
DVD set: Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection (5 films, including The Devil is a Woman)
Director: Frank Borzage.
The Garden of Allah (1936)
Director: Richard Boleslawski. With Charles Boyer.
Knight without Armour (1937)
Director: Jacques Feyder. Dietrich and Robert Donat in the Russian revolution.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Dietrich (as Angel) and her husband take separate vacations, and she falls in love with another man.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Director: George Marshall. Dietrich (as the feisty saloon girl “Frenchy”) and James Stewart. A good comeback for Dietrich, highlighted by the now-classic catfight with Una Merkel.
Seven Sinners (1940)
Director: Tay Garnett. With John Wayne and Broderick Crawford in the South Seas. Contains the iconic Dietrich line: “I’m a b-a-a-d influence.”
The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
Director: René Clair
Director: Raoul Walsh
The Spoilers (1942)
Director: Ray Enright. Alaska gold miners tale with Randolph Scott and John Wayne.
Director: Lewis Seiler. Dietrich again teams up with Randolph Scott and John Wayne.
Director: William Dieterle
Golden Earrings (1947)
Director: Mitchell Leisen. With Ray Milland. Some claim Dietrich actually pulled off the dark-faced gypsy role. The title song became something of a hit.
A Foreign Affair (1948)
Director: Billy Wilder. Filmed in post-war Berlin, starring Jean Arthur. A forgotten Wilder classic that deserves more respect.
Stage Fright (1950)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
No Highway in the Sky (1951)
Director: Henry Koster. Teamed with James Stewart again.
Rancho Notorious (1952)
Director: Friz Lang. Technicolor.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
Director: Michael Anderson. Along with Frank Sinatra, Dietrich had a cameo role as a saloon girl in the wild West in this wide-screen epic.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Director: Orson Welles. A modern film noir set in Mexico — with Charlton Heston.
Witness for the Prosecution (1958)
Director: Billy Wilder. A mystery with a surprise ending. A true success for both Dietrich and Wilder.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Director: Stanley Kramer. Dietrich has a key role opposite judge Spencer Tracey.
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Director: David Hemmings. Set in Berlin after the First World War. Her last feature film.
FILMS ABOUT DIETRICH
Marlene Dietrich: Shadow and Light (1996, TV)
Director: Chris Hunt. This documentary about Dietrich was originally produced for the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel. It features archival footage and interviews with people who knew her, including her daughter Maria Riva and director Billy Wilder.
Director: Maximilian Schell. This documentary about Dietrich was filmed in Paris using only her voice, under the condition that she would not be seen on camera.
Director: Joseph Vilsmaier. This German biopic starred the well-known German actress Katja Flint as Dietrich.
Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song (2001)
Director: David Riva (Dietrich’s grandson). “The films, affairs and struggles of the iconic star … as told by Rosemary Clooney, Roger Corman, Deanna Durbin and many more.” – from IMDb
Box Set DVD
DVD: Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection – Five of her films: Morocco, Blonde Venus, The Devil Is a Woman, Flame of New Orleans, Golden Earrings
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Featured Biographies – More full bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Berlin’s “Boulevard of Stars” is similar to Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.” Dietrich was honored with the first star in 2010.
- Marlene Dietrich stars in Berlin is a GW Expat Blog post about Dietrich’s star on Berlin’s Boulevard der Stars.
- Berlin City Guide – The sights and history of the German capital
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
ON THE WEB
- Marlene.com (official, licensed site)
- Deutsche Kinemathek has the only Marlene Dietrich museum exhibit in Berlin. (English)
- The Marlene Dietrich Collection – Deutsche Kinemathek’s Film Museum has a permanent exhibition of items related to Dietrich’s life and career. The Museum is located at the Sony Center in Berlin
- Deutsche Kinemathek: Dietrich Biography in English
- marlene4ever.com – The Marlene Dietrich Fan Club was founded in 2005. The site features photos and info (in German and English).
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