The following is an extract from the chapter “Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)” in James Naremore’s Acting in the Cinema (University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1988). It has been re-published here with the kind permission of the author.

* * *

Dietrich’s work with Josef von Sternberg involves what Nietzsche and Freud, in another context, called a “transvaluation of values”. Neither a realist nor a comic, she inhabits a realm where visible artifice becomes the sign of authenticity. She also challenges our ability to judge her acting skill, because her image is unusually dependent on a controlled, artful mise en scène. In fact, to hear Sternberg tell it, she was little more than his masochistic slave. In his curious autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg treats her with a mixture of cool admiration and catty, paranoid contempt – exactly the tone of a spurned, neurotically proud lover. His frequent comments on movie acting are equally scathing: “The more I ponder on the problems of the artist, the less they resemble the problems of the actor” (97). “An actor is turned on and off like a spigot, and like a spigot, is not the source of the liquid that flows through him” (165). “To study acting is one thing, but to study the actor and the female of the acting species is something else again. There would be no need to study them at all were it not that [films are] dominated by them, and it is necessary to become familiar with the material one is compelled to use” (122).

Dietrich herself has not contradicted these judgements. In the documentary Marlene (1986), she describes her early Hollywood films as “kitsch”, makes condescending remarks about the intellectual powers of women, and seems reluctant to acknowledge that she ever paid much attention to what she was doing. A number of critics have explicitly or implicitly agreed, often noting that Dietrich’s work after the dissolution of her partnership with Sternberg is relatively disappointing. It is well to remember, however, that Sternberg’s own reputation would be slight had he not “discovered” her. Perhaps the balance of the equation between them can be restored if we study her acting technique more closely.

Admittedly, Maria Magdalena Dietrich von Losch (her real name seems more appropriate than the one she adopted) was a player who required a special setting, and in the highly decorated world of Paramount in the ’30s she found it. In most of her subsequent work she is like a celebrity guest on loan, undermining or deflecting the film’s ostensible project – for example in Seven Sinners (1940), where she serenades John Wayne, dressed in a naval officer’s uniform exactly like his own. Among her later directors, only Orson Welles cast her brilliantly, as Tana, the gypsy prostitute in Touch of Evil (1958). For once, she appeared in a movie that rivaled Sternberg for stylistic audacity, and she blended perfectly with the Wellesian atmosphere of self-reflexive jokes and overheated theatricalism. Otherwise, she was most effective when she played the person she appeared to be in the public mind: a grand and still beautiful star from the old days who never suffered the torments of Norma Desmond – as in Stage Fright (1950) and No Highway in the Sky (1951).

No matter what the ambiance of her Hollywood films, Dietrich nearly always took the role of a gilded, extravagant figure on a stage. She became a star who acted stardom, an exotic European who was rarely “naturalized” or brought down to earth. In her early days with Sternberg, she was also provocative and controversial. Her costuming, makeup, and lighting were foregrounded to a remarkable degree, like mannerism in painting, and her style was slower, much more expressionistic than talking pictures encouraged. As a result, many viewers found her pretentious. For example, John Grierson complained that Sternberg had become a mere photographer, bent on picturing Dietrich ad nauseam: “Her pose of mystery I find too studied, her makeup too artificial, her every gesture and word too deliberate for any issue in drama save the gravest. Sternberg is perhaps still after that ancient intensity. When themes are thin it is a hankering that can bring one very close to the ridiculous” (59).

Apparently Grierson did not appreciate the humor in Dietrich’s performances or the possibility that her nearly ridiculous posing was intended to challenge the normal canons of taste and decorum. David Selznick was aware of her oddity and was expressing a fairly typical industry opinion when in 1931 he remarked that Sternberg’s films dealt with “completely fake people in wholly fake situations. He has forced audiences to swallow things that their intelligence would normally reject, by a series of brilliant tricks” (28). In fact, the Sternberg films with Dietrich were a baffling mixture of commercial melodrama and extreme aestheticism, of dime-novel clichés and worldly irony; even at their most self-consciously artistic, they were poised in a zone somewhere between romantic idealism, camp, and modernism, as if a certain tendency of Hollywood and late-nineteenth-century art had been pushed to such extremes that it began to deconstruct. Any commentary on Dietrich needs to acknowledge this bewildering melange of effects. The trouble is that some of the best writing devoted to her seems unable to capture the contestatory implications of her performances and the paradoxes of the Sternberg films.

The problem becomes evident when we reflect on the considerable differences among three of the most influential approaches to Dietrich, beginning with Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, the most widely-debated essay on Hollywood in the past three decades. Mulvey makes brilliantly radical use of Freudian/Lacanian psychology, leaving a hypostasized masculine audience suspended between two mutually misogynistic avenues to pleasure: Stemberg’s “fetishistic scopophilia” and Hitchcock’s sadistic voyeurism. Both alternatives are phallocentric: both depend on “the image of the castrated woman” (6) and support the patriarchal values of mainstream culture. Unfortunately, as Mulvey and others have subsequently noted, such a reading offers little possibility for countercultural play; it not only suggests that female viewers are passively molded by Hollywood but also oversimplifies Sternberg and Hitchcock, both of whom anticipate and even encourage psychoanalytic interpretation. And where Dietrich is concerned, Mulvey seems only to confirm Sternberg’s notion that she was a sort of wax dummy or canvas upon which he painted, doubtless using the camera stylo as a substitute penis.

A quite different view is suggested by Susan Sontag’s earlier “Notes on Camp”, which briefly comments on Sternberg’s links with gay subcultural style. “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility”, Sontag writes, “are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” (290). She associates Sternberg with the second category, but she mentions the Dietrich films only in passing, commenting on their breathtaking decorative excess. Actually, her interest is much broader; she wants to define an apolitical, decadent, but potentially subversive attitude – produced by a distinctly male imagination – that operates intermittently in Western art between the seventeenth century and the present. In the last analysis, she leaves it up to us (as camp often does) to decide exactly which products of the aesthetic tradition merit “serious admiration and study” (278).

Between Sontag’s Hellenic and Mulvey’s Hebraic views are the liberal-humanist readings of Andrew Sarris (The Films of Joseph von Sternberg) and Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape), which acknowledge a dialectic between director and star. Sarris and Haskell are well attuned to the ambiguities of the Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration and to the realpolitik of the star system. But even though Sarris recognizes Dietrich’s importance, he is chiefly concerned with Sternberg’s “emotional autobiography”, arguing that directorial style cannot be opposed to “serious” content: “there is nothing trivial about the size of Sternberg’s emotions, and nothing disproportionate in the means to express them, critics from John Grierson to Susan Sontag notwithstanding” (8). Haskell, meanwhile, is more interested in the complex implications of Dietrich’s image than in the specific details of her performances.

Dietrich’s performing mannerisms aside, these three approaches seem equally convincing – proof of the contradictory, dialogic force of the films. My own discussion has drawn freely from each of them; I would justify my pluralism by arguing that the Dietrich-Sternberg collaboration is a meeting point of at least three distinct cultural and subcultural strains:

(1) The Hollywood narrative, with its strong emphasis on heterosexual love and conflict, its patriarchal norms, and its classical form – although here we need to be more specific, noting that several of the Dietrich-Sternberg films were made before the Production Code and in the wake of silent cinema, when Hollywood was just passing out of a vogue for titillating “women’s” romance derived from writers like Blasco lbañez and Elinor Glyn. This is the aspect Sarris and Haskell emphasize, and it follows that their best observations concern things that happen at the manifest level of plot, in the conflict between male and female characters.

(2) The decadent, largely male homosexual art of the eighteen-nineties. Sternberg, one of the last dandies, might have adopted a statement by Oscar Wilde as his motto: “What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion”. Dietrich’s persona clearly derives from the cruel women imagined by Victorian aesthetes – Swinburne’s Dolores, Pater’s Mona Lisa, Wilde’s Salome, and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus. At this level, psychoanalysis has an important explanatory value, even suggesting that a strong social prohibition against homosexuality gives rise to certain types of fetishistic imagination. Susan Sontag’s essay on camp, however, does not employ Freud, probably because she has chosen not to use “Jewish moral seriousness” to explicate an ideologically opposed tradition.

(3) The military glamour and whips-and-bondage display of urban Germany. This style, to which Dietrich’s name tends to adhere as much as Sternberg’s, is not entirely different from camp, but its tone is arch and sardonic, reminiscent of Berlin during the Weimar republic. Sternberg has described the sexual confusion of Weimar nightlife in his autobiography: “At night, when I went out to dine, it was not unusual for something that sat next to me, dressed as a woman, to powder its nose with a large puff that a moment ago had seemed to be a breast…Not only did men masquerade as women, but the woods were full of females who looked and functioned like men…To raise an eyebrow at all this branded one as a tourist” (228-29). Berlin in 1929, he wrote, “was an evocation by Goya, Beardsley, Marquis de Bayros, Zille, Baudelaire, and Huysmans”. When he first noticed Dietrich, leaning against the wings of a stage with “a cold buffoonery…indifferent to my presence”, she seemed “a model who had been designed by Rops, but Toulouse-Lautrec would have turned a couple of handsprings had he laid eyes upon her” (232). Such attitudes, embodied in his films, undoubtedly provoke Laura Mulvey’s analysis of “fetishistic scopophilia” and her revulsion against a sexist, latently pornographic meaning.

None of these cultural strains can be separated neatly from the others. The Hollywood norms tend to hold the potentially subversive, subcultural meanings in check, but that only serves to heighten the fetishistic playfulness, the tone of sexual humiliation, the threat of deconstruction. In effect, the dominant cultural voice causes the subcultural voices to “collaborate” in the making of a suspended, almost ruptured illusion. The resulting sexual and ideological ambiguity has been well described by Bill Nichols, who notes that Sternberg “promises pleasure in a context of presence and absence, hide and seek…He stresses the tenuous alliance between our belief in the illusion and our belief in its reality. He threatens to unveil a scandal before our very eyes; he invites us to play in the gap, the wedgelike opening that his style unveils…Like Yasujiro Ozu, Sternberg can be read as a modernist but, like Ozu, that decisive step toward Brecht and a political modernism is only threatened, never taken”. Moreover, Sternberg’s method is homologous with Dietrich’s performing style, which is dependent upon “signifying that she seems to be something she is not, and that she is in control of the difference”. In this way, “the fetish remains triumphant. What is guaranteed is the delicious, tantalizing fullness of waiting for what is promised but neither revealed nor exposed” (125-26).

Such observations could perhaps be made about Hollywood performance in general, because the stars appear before us in the form of gigantic photographs projected on a screen; the “absent” presence of actors as images, together with the images’ size and the fact that they cut off and isolate parts of the body, all contribute to a fetishistic aura. But Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are an extreme manifestation, raised to an unusual level of self-consciousness. They enact the drama of the fetish in all its aspects – in the form of commodity-fetishism, using Paramount’s luxurious costumes for a spectacular display; in the form of aestheticism, turning Dietrich into a creature of pure art who always signals her artificiality; and in the form of Freudian psychology, making Dietrich’s body an ambiguous field of sexual symbols. There is, moreover, every reason to believe that Dietrich knowingly contributed to these effects, cleverly manipulating her performances. Even in Marlene she finds a correlative to her early work, insisting that director Maximillian Schell never photograph her or her surroundings, so that she “appears” as nothing but a voice, speaking over old photographs; hence she remains tantalizingly present and absent, stimulating curiosity and continuing to signify mystery.

Sternberg’s films insist on the same kind of paradox, and they always openly confess their obsessiveness, disarming their more sophisticated viewers. His mise en scène is fairly littered with fetishistic paraphernalia, as if Dietrich’s style had prompted him to stretch the codes of Hollywood glamour farther than usual, ultimately creating a world that was too playfully perverse, too exquisite for a popular audience. His private taste for highbrow pornography, his infatuation with his star, his dandified contempt for mass taste all these attitudes seemed to fuel his need to subvert convention, producing views of Dietrich that were finely balanced between irony and idealization. ‘Ihe process is evident as early as Morocco, before the obvious excess of The Scarlet Empress (1934) or The Devil Is a Woman (1935). In one sense Morocco, seems to take its faintly absurd situations seriously, expressing all sorts of romantic notions about love, about the instinctual self, and about the director as a gifted individual; in another sense it makes everything a fabrication, hinting that sex is most interesting when it is slightly perverse, that the self is a masquerade, and – by means of’ the artistic fusion between Dietrich and Sternberg – that there is no such thing as an individual artist.

This atmosphere of double or even triple entendre has an effect on everything we can say about Dietrich. It extends even to Sternberg’s well-known Flaubertian boast, “I am Marlene – Marlene is me”. The words function both as an assertion that he designed her image, basing it on what he saw in her and her culture, and as confession that she was his projection; at the same time, they suggest that she was an active agent, gazing back at Sternberg and determining his attitude. As a result she becomes simultaneously a sex object, an ego ideal with which he identified, and a partial shaper of his fictions. Like Sternberg himself, she is an independent character, capable of grand romantic (or masochistic) behavior, ready to shock her audience or thrill them by flouting convention. The films enforce this parallel by taking the leading metaphor of Morocco – “there is a foreign legion of women, too”-and combining it with the traditional themes of the vamp or the sexually domineering woman, allowing Dietrich, often wearing pants, to adopt the postures of men, standing or sitting with legs spread, arms akimbo. Occasionally during these moments, the director and star are so closely allied that we cannot tell whether Dietrich is playing a man or Sternberg is playing a woman; identity becomes costume, and in Andrew Sarris’s words, “surfaces become essences”.

Furthermore, while Dietrich helps to foster the psychopathology of Sternberg’s “vision”, her acting style and the plots of the films offer a simultaneous critique of patriarchal convention. Her slowed-down, expressionistic manner, her ambiguous gestures and illocutionary acts, her evident sense of humor – these things involve a special disavowal, less like the fetishistic dynamic described by Mulvey and more like a social irony. For this reason, Dietrich’s most interesting performances have opened up a marginal space for liberal or radically alternative readings, exemplified by the reactions of such diverse critics as Molly Haskell, Robin Wood, Ann Kaplan, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and Judith Mayne.

Whatever its various effects, the Dietrich-Sternberg collaboration was anything but typical, and its success did not last for long. Although Dietrich’s salary in the mid ’30s was enormous, she was never listed among the top ten box-office attractions, and depression-era audiences often felt she was preposterously exotic. Paramount had begun its publicity campaign for Morocco by describing her as “the woman all women want to see” (Baxter, 75); by the end of the decade, however, Hollywood was attempting to make her more “ordinary”, casting her as a saloon entertainer in Destry Rides Again (1939), where James Stewart tells her, “I bet you’ve got a lovely face under all that paint. Why don’t you wipe it off some day and have a good look?”

Over the years her primary appeal has been to aesthetes, male gays, intellectuals, and some feminist critics who see her as an emblem of assertiveness. Only in the late phase of her career, as an aging but “eternally” glamorous woman (and as a German who had entertained GI’s during the war), did she become an object of nostalgia and popular affection. The old-world “military code” that Alexander Walker detects in her screen character – her apparent contempt for bourgeois comfort, her tendency to dress in soldiers’ clothes, her jaunty salutes and cocked hats – was poignant in these later appearances, making her sustained beauty into something heroic, worn like a badge.

Works cited

Baxter, John, The Cinema Of Josef Von Sternberg. London: A. Zwimmer, 1971

Haskell, Molly, From Reverence To Rape, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974

Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16, no. 3 (1975)

Nichols, Bill, Ideology And The Image, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981

Sarris, Andrew, The Films Of Josef Von Sternberg. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966

Sontag, Susan, Against Interpretation, New York: Delta, 1966

von Sternberg, Josef, Fun In A Chinese Laundry, London: Secker and Warburg, 1965

Walker, Alexander, Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon, London: Penguin, 1974

About The Author

James Naremore, Indiana University, is the author of several books on film, including More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998).

Related Posts