March 4 – March 18
As a trendsetter who pushed the boundaries of conventional gender performance, and a femme fatale of the silver screen, Marlene Dietrich’s (1901–1992) sexuality was provocative, as was the exotic “foreignness” she displayed in her Hollywood films.
Beloved for her knack of reinventing herself, Dietrich was a woman who very consciously managed her career and fastidiously cultivated her image. In 1920s Berlin, Dietrich acted on the stage and in silent films, drawing wide appeal for the skills she developed as a chorus girl in vaudeville-style entertainment. Her breakthrough performance as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel in 1930 brought her international acclaim, a contract with Paramount and a collaborative partner, Josef von Sternberg, who would help define her persona across the seven extraordinary features they made together including Dishonored and The Scarlet Empress. Dietrich went on to star in further classic Hollywood films such as Desire, Angel, Destry Rides Again and A Foreign Affair for key directors like Borzage, Lubitsch and Wilder. Although she still made intermittent movies such as Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a marquee live-show performer, harking back (but always renewed) to the early days of her career.
As a true icon of popular culture, she remains a powerful signifier in an ever-larger arena of cultural discourses including performativity, gender, ageing, celebrity and sexuality.
Josef von Sternberg (1931) 91 mins – Unclassified 15 +
Based on the legendary exploits of Mata Hari, Sternberg’s extravagant re-imagining of his native Vienna during World War I is a delirious but grounded mixture of irreverent historicism and romantic melodrama. One of the director’s greatest works, it features a piercingly nonchalant performance by Dietrich as an alluring sex worker and spy who betrays her country for love. This brilliantly designed and costumed (by Travis Banton) espionage tale provides a lucid portrait of a woman forced to use her sexuality in a hostile patriarchal world. Co-stars Victor McLaglen.
Dishonoured by Tamara Tracz.
Frank Borzage (1936) 95 mins – G
Borzage’s elegant, streamlined romantic comedy in the style of Lubitsch (who co-produced) translates the latter’s sophisticated worldliness into a characteristically soulful romanticism. Dietrich stars as the vivacious, cultured jewel thief who cons a naïve automotive engineer (Gary Cooper) into smuggling a necklace from France into Spain, only for love to blossom despite their moral differences. As in many of Dietrich’s greatest performances, costume, décor, gesture and the play of light take starring roles.
Ernst Lubitsch (1937) 91 mins – Unclassified 15 +
Dietrich plays the disaffected wife of a British diplomat (Herbert Marshall) who flies to Paris for the night to visit the “salon” of a Russian duchess. There she meets and falls for an attractive stranger (Melvyn Douglas) who gives her the codename “Angel”. Regarded as a significant failure on release, it has emerged as one of Lubitsch and Dietrich’s most sophisticated, penetrating and underrated works. An extraordinarily elegant and incisive portrait of the entanglements of love and sexual attraction, it is also a fascinating document of old Europe teetering on the cusp of war.
8:15pm DESTRY RIDES AGAIN
George Marshall (1939) 97 mins – PG
Borrowing the title but little else from Max Brand’s novel, Marshall offers a comically subversive western with striking views on gun violence and the place of women in the genre, perhaps courtesy of one-time communist Gertrude Purcell sharing script duty. Dietrich plays a chanteuse caught between Brian Donlevy’s ruthless boss and a new sheriff – James Stewart in one of his most shrewdly guileless performances – who proves not quite as acquiescent as he’s supposed to be. Marlene’s memorable barroom fight with Una Merkel caused some consternation in its day.
6:30pm A FOREIGN AFFAIR
Billy Wilder (1948) 116 mins – PG
Wilder, Richard L. Breen and Charles Brackett’s wicked and pointed satire about a congressional investigation into GI morals portrays bombed-out Berlin as a supremely corrupt black marketeers’ paradise. Although it stars Jean Arthur as a fish-out-of-water congresswoman negotiating the moral and cultural quagmire of the emerging Cold War, Dietrich steals the film as a slippery, Mephisto-like chanteuse. A knowing reversal of the star’s renowned anti-fascism, it includes a wonderful score by Friedrich Hollaender who also features as Dietrich’s accompanist.
8:40pm I KISS YOUR HAND, MADAME
Robert Land (1929) 66 mins – Unclassified 15 +
In one of her final “silent films”, Dietrich stars as a divorcee in Paris luxuriating in her freedom and a circle of adoring men. This divine comedy is marked by elegant set design and the exquisite appeal of Parisian high life, beautifully captured by cinematographers Carl Drews and Gotthardt Wolf. While mostly silent, this was the first German film to use synchronised sound technology, giving a platform to established lead Harry Liedtke and the titular song. However, it is Dietrich who emerges as the clear star, displaying early signs of her extraordinary performative sensuality.
35mm print courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek.