Dishonored is one of the least discussed of the Sternberg-Dietrich cycle that began with The Blue Angel in 1930 and ended six films and five years later with The Devil is a Woman in 1935. In David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film it is described as “sardonic and not particularly inspired”1 and in the BFI’s The Cinema Book it is barely mentioned.2 Certainly this film does not sit as neatly with some of the theories about the cycle as do others. Dietrich in Dishonored is as iconic as she is in any other film. Nevertheless, although she is as much the image of the femme fatale, she is no man-eater like Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel or Conchita Perez in The Devil is a Woman. Like Sophia/Catherine in The Scarlet Empress (1934) she is a woman forced to use her sexual nature to survive in a hostile and patriarchal society, but in this film Dietrich’s character is not victorious as Catherine is, or at least not in quite the same way. Shot by a firing squad for betraying her country, the leading character in Dishonored dies – but it is a strange death because in spite of (or perhaps even because of) it she seems absolutely triumphant. Triumph becomes death. The message of this film seems to be that if you want to triumph, if you are a strong, independent and unashamed woman, then you can be yourself, but it will kill you. It is this situation – the situation that leads to death as the only available triumph – that seems to me to sit at the heart of Dishonored and sets it apart from the other films in the cycle.
The Dietrich character in this film is a prostitute, a woman placed outside the norms of society. (She is often literally outside as well – we are introduced to her outside, under a lamppost in the rain in the very first images of the film.) Her prostitution defines her throughout the film, but it does something more. Many of the Sternberg-Dietrich films deal with the position of women in society and the strategies women have to use in order to survive. In all of them one is aware of the social inequalities under which women try to operate; made into “brood mares” (The Scarlet Empress) or deprived of their children (Blonde Venus, 1932). But the prostitute is the most visible manifestation of the position of women in a patriarchal society – her sexual nature both defining her and making her an outcast. In her book Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva writes, “And yet, from the place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master.”3
This is the position of the Dietrich character. She is aware of her abjection and its unjust nature and she challenges it. She talks of death as a way to redeem an inglorious life, but she displays no sense of guilt or shame for that life. In one of the most important statements in the film she says: “I’m not afraid of life. But I’m not afraid of death either.” This is a powerful and ambiguous statement that describes, very early in the piece, the central line of the character’s thought. Life as a prostitute is still life and she engages actively within it without any loss of personal dignity. Ironically, it is this very defiance, this self pride and self understanding that forces her to use strategies of ongoing complexity in order to function, and which eventually lead to the embrace, despite her life force, of her own death.
She is a character who is almost never named – and this is her choice. Arriving at the Secret Service offices she says: “I prefer to not give my name.” Variously referred to in texts and the credits as Magda, Mary or Marie, in the film she is mostly just a number, X27,4 or “woman”, a specific woman who, by the withdrawal of her name, becomes an icon. The loss of a name may make her iconic but it also reduces her, draws her into herself. It is by our names that we call each other, and nobody is calling for or to this woman. This isolation is her choice. Not only is she not called, she herself calls no one. She speaks no more than she has to. We learn of her dead husband not from her but from the head of the Austrian Secret Service. It is as though this woman, whose body is so available to be known, has made the rest of herself, even her name, unknowable. Unlike Lola-Lola, Catherine or Concha, she is a woman who, despite being a prostitute, is not allowing her sexual nature to define her – she both keeps herself private and defiantly refuses to be named. Her prostitution defines how she is looked at, but not how she looks at herself. Indeed, her sexuality is one of the least useful things that an audience of the film has as a guide to any real understanding of who she is. Clues we are given though to the nature of the real woman beneath the skin and the sex that are for sale: her dolls, her piano, her clothes, her cat and her gaze.
Small dolls are suspended on lengths of elastic in her apartment. These are female figures with tails, amusing and demonic at once. She smiles at them as she passes, setting them bouncing. It seems clear that she has made them, but it is not clear why. Thus these enigmatic dolls become miniatures of her, enigmatic woman. Perhaps as she has been “made” into a prostitute by the nature of the society of which she is a part, so she makes these figures, regaining control in the most basic manner, making her own little women not just social outcasts but actual devils, and then delighting in their devilishness- celebrating it in a kind of fort/da game.5 When the head of the Austrian Secret Service plays the piano it is the dolls that dance, making the mocking commentary she is unable to.
So the dolls dance when the head of the Austrian Secret Service plays her piano, and he plays badly, with a heavy-handed “oom-pah-pah”. His assumption is that a prostitute would have no feeling for music but she is a better musician than him, and she demonstrates this by playing immediately after him and putting him to shame. Shame is the feeling that he, and society, would expect her to feel, and by deflecting it back to him she makes a powerful statement. She is a cultured woman, not just the street whore she is taken for. Later in the film she herself makes more explicit the link between these two things, her musical talent and her prostitution. When awaiting her execution she requests two things; her streetwalker’s clothes (costume) and her (a) piano. The Spy Master made his assumptions of her musical talent based on what he saw her wearing and what that indicated. She puts on those clothes again with defiant pride, but she does not ask for them alone. The piano is the other half. It is the interior to match and complement the exterior. It is a defiant statement of identity made by a woman who is aware that it is the manifestation of that identity that will lead to her own death.
Her music is more than just a statement though. It is a way that she has of expressing herself when she is unable or unwilling to express herself verbally. It becomes at once a way to keep herself secret and try and make herself known. Like the dolls, it is an attempt at self-expression, but an obscure one. One starts to sense that the social strictures under which she is working have created an almost unbearable tension between the need to be known and the need to be secret. The use of music, of performance as a means of self expression makes the audience of the film (who are, like the head of the Austrian Secret Service, an audience to this performance) a part of the society in which she lives. We watch her (she is “to-be-looked-at”6) but we do not really understand her. We do not know if the dolls that mock are mocking us too.
The piano becomes a battle ground between X27 and her nemesis, the Russian spy Kranau who she pursues and with whom she conducts a constant dance of desire and control. When Kranau plays the piano she looks at him while holding her cat in her arms, and the cat fixes him with an equally powerful regard. Her cat is literally her only ally,7 but it is also more than that. Later, in one of the long dissolves that link the scenes of this film, we move from X27 in close up, reacting to her sentence of death, to a shot of her lying in her cell with the cat. The length of the superimposition of the two images places her face above that of the cat’s for long enough that they seem as one. In Russian territory X27 plays the cat, meowing as she hides on the wardrobe. It is her cat, with its meows, that alerts Kranau to her presence, literally standing in for her. The cat of course (and especially the black cat) has long been seen as an image standing in for female sexual promiscuousness and prostitution. The black cat on the bed in Manet’s Olympia is only one example of this, as is the black cat that is stereotypically the witch’s pet of choice. The use of the word pussy as slang for female genitalia is also well established, and it is well to remember that it was curiosity, after all, the attribute of both spies and gossips, that killed the cat.
Much has been written about the importance of the gaze in the representation of women in film – in the look that both the male characters and the audience direct to the woman represented. But in this film the most powerful gaze is that of the woman herself. Her looking out at the world is the act of appropriation of a woman whose opportunity to appropriate is limited. At moments when she is in danger, the gaze becomes mobile; her eyes move within her still face offering an outer indication of the inner workings of her mind. Intelligent (as is seen by her success as a spy), she has been denied the use of her intelligence because she is a woman and a whore. Forced into being defined by her body and sex, she appropriates them as weapons. It is the woman who carried out that appropriation that is revealed by the gaze.
The piano, dolls, cat and gaze all give us hints at who this woman is, but they are only hints. At times we need to revert to other strategies to understand her better. The use of negative space is useful here, and by looking at the men in this film we can get not only a clearer picture of the position that the woman finds herself in, but a clearer picture of the woman herself. Unusually for many films but typical of the Sternberg-Dietrich cycle, two men (one older, one younger) are presented to counter one woman. The force of these women, and the force of Dietrich, seem more than one man could bare, and this is an interesting counterpoint to the position of oppression (both in relationships with men and with society) in which, in one form or another, all these women find themselves. The younger man in Dishonored, Kranau, plays the part of the traditional love interest but in many ways it is the older man, the head of the Austrian Secret Service, who is the most interesting. Like her, he is a man without a name. It is he who discovers her, he who tries to control her, and ultimately it is he, and not Kranau, who allows her to be killed.
Because he feels no desire for her, the head of the Austrian Secret Service’s feelings of disgust for X27 are interesting. It is her status as a prostitute that defines her for him. When spying is described to her, the Spy Master calls it detestable. But perhaps it is detestable in relation to her. When he maligns the word she says “Maybe I haven’t the right to object to any word” and he snaps back, “No. You don’t.” Thus the prostitute and the spy become synonymous, equally disgusting and equally female. And yet he is a leader and creator of spies. When he tells her of what to expect he says it will be “lower than anything you have ever experienced”. She says nothing but the look on her face is eloquent. Clearly this is a man who has no idea of what a woman who is a prostitute might experience. In his strange laboratory of an office, where his impotence is highlighted in contrast to her active role in the field, he tells her that sometimes it is more useful to have a “woman’s charm” than a “man’s brains”. This is the dichotomy that she works against throughout the film, the cause of her masquerades, enigmatic gaze, and masochistic embrace of her own abjection – for she has both charm and brains, and there is not enough space allowed in this world for both of those things to fit into her physical body. All this is made very clear during an important moment at the beginning of the film. As she (not yet X27) takes him into her apartment thinking him to be a client, she unlocks the door while he stands behind her and his body casts a huge shadow that engulfs her. Though he is clearly less intelligent and less courageous than her, this image confirms what we already know, that he will always be the one with the power.
This double standard is more noticeable in her relationship with Kranau, who is a spy like her. Kranau says, with disgust, that she uses her body to cheat and lie. But he is cheating and lying too, and they are both in the same profession. He uses his body as an instrument of deception when he pretends to be a cripple. He even delights openly in his deception, asking her “How do you like my masquerade?” Spying is a profession that he sees as honourable for himself. Himself. The male/female divide is thus laid down via the profession of spying. As a prostitute the woman is a subject of the gaze, she is displayed, but as a spy, while she may still be using her body, she is defined by her active gaze, her finding out of what is secret. When we see Kranau engaged as a spy his action is one of passing on information. When we see her, the action is of obtaining it. As with the head of the Austrian Secret Service, who fumes impotently in his office, the fact that it is the woman who is the most active of the characters must be unbearable to Kranau, and must influence his decision to leave her to her death.
The men in the film need X27 to be a whore so they can use her, but the irony is that she will not be useful to them if she is not also very intelligent and resourceful, attributes that they cannot reconcile with her position as a prostitute. She has to die, in the end, because the threat she presents to patriarchy, of a woman who is sexual, unashamed and able, is too great. The head of the Austrian Secret Service may regret her death, but he doesn’t stop it. She knows that. She is absolutely aware of the impossible situation she is in, and as a powerful and intelligent women, she has developed strategies for dealing with this. Because the situation is impossible, these strategies are complex and perverse – a perversity that leads to her only possible triumph being an active embrace of her own death, an intense and powerful form of female masochism. Masochism, male and female, is present in all of Sternberg’s films and the way X27 uses it (and is used by it) is at the centre of Dishonored.
Dishonored shows a woman who is a prostitute, who is defined by her body and her sex. Her gaze and her music may be ways of preserving what she really is, but they are not effective weapons against the society that has condemned her for what it has brought her to. In order to really counteract the forces that oppress her, she needs to be much more complicated and much more dangerous. For this is not a battle that women seem able to win. As has been noted the only real victory is death, which is no real victory. In such a fight things are deep and complicated, they have to be subverted, they have to be perverted. They have to be twisted around so that something that is no victory can become some kind of victory.
X27 fights by accepting what has been forced on her, turning it around, refusing to be shamed and downcast by it but instead making it her pleasure. She makes her oppression the very thing that she desires. If you make me guilty and punish me, she says, I will take your punishment and transform it into a reward. I will love it. The costume she should be most ashamed of is the one she wears to her death, visually placing her defiance in the eyes of the men who kill her. Perversion is the act of turning something around from what it should be to something else – or, as in this case, from something that it shouldn’t be to something else. Kristeva writes: “The abject is related to perversion…. The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.”8
The act of “retaking” her costume as a prostitute is a form of masochism and defiance. She turns herself inside out. She makes her outside (costume) her inside and her inside (sexuality) her visible outside. There is a perverse pleasure in her pride at being what is despised. And I find it hard to believe that Sternberg didn’t enjoy as much as I did her final act of perversion – the moment when, just before dying, she gives her pussy to the priest.
Such perversion is complicated though. There is no clear dividing line between strategy and desire. The strategy can only work if the pleasure that she takes in spite is a real pleasure, if her masochism does contain an element of real sexual gratification. As Kristeva puts it, “so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims – if not its submissive and willing ones.”9
Her masochism is a form of sexual warfare, but it is also a form of pleasure. Where the lines are drawn, what is pleasure and what is strategy, what is chosen and what rises unbidden, is impossible to tell, and the film reflects these complications by refusing to show too much. She remains ambiguous as her motives.
This ambiguity is at its most heightened in the scene that results in her death, when she drops the gun and allows Kranau to escape. The ownership of the gun has continually defined the power balance between them. In this scene she makes what seems to be a clear decision to drop it. When interrogated X27 says, “Maybe I loved him”. Well, maybe she did – but then again, maybe she didn’t. It seems more likely that the dropping of the gun is a deliberate attempt to take, on her terms and at her timing, the death that she understands as inevitable, the death that is the culmination of her own masochism. It is a death that is imposed, but that, like all the other things that have been imposed on her, she appropriates by taking pleasure in. Sternberg is known for his masterful use of two-dimensional space and his continual veiling of Dietrich’s face, either by fabric, light or shadows. In this mesmeric shot, where she watches Kranau’s escape through the window, patterns of light cross her face like a fluid veil, and she wears an expression of erotic rapture. She is falling towards death and victory now, and knows it.
Such complications reflect the nature of the abject and emphasise the death drive in the heart of a character so full of life. Throughout the film she talks of death as something that can redeem her or make her life better. She says she is not afraid of death (or life) but it is death that she embraces, not in an act of suicide, but as the only culmination of her battle with the men in the film – and in the world. The only way she can make visible to the men the double standards and cruelty of a patriarchal society is to make them kill her, and make them see themselves doing it. She dies in order to make her situation finally visible in all its double standards to those who created and maintained it. Her preparations for her execution, her costume, the deliberate and provocative application of lipstick, make it clear that this is a show, something to be watched and performed. And it is an effective show. Not only does the young soldier refuse to kill her, even the Spy Master seems, when looking at her body, struck by a remorse that holds in it an understanding of all that she was. And yet, effective as it is, it still ends with her death.
Sternberg writes that he did not like the title of this film because his heroine was not “dishonored”, she was executed. But like many of Sternberg’s much-quoted comments, such as his supposed disregard for actors or his remark that his films could just as well be projected upside-down, this is to be taken with a degree of caution. For X27 is dishonoured profoundly in this film. Social and financial situations drive her to prostitution, after which her profession is used to define her, and when she shows herself to me more than her profession, she evokes both fury and disgust. Eventually, and inevitably, she dies. Embodied in Dietrich’s magnificent presence, Dishonored is a film that powerfully presents, in a complex and ambiguous way, the lack of honour that is characteristic of the way women are treated in society and also how they are represented in film. Like X27, Sternberg’s methods are complex and contradictory, which is probably why what they create is a beautiful, intoxicating and difficult film that even despite itself is absolutely truthful.
• • •
Dishonored (1931 USA 91 mins)
Source: NFVLS Prod Co: Paramount Dir: Josef von Sternberg Scr: Daniel N. Rubin, from the story “X 27” by Sternberg Phot: Lee Garmes Art Dir: Hans Dreier
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Lew Cody, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Warner Oland, Barry Norton, Wilfred Lucas
- David A Cook, A History of Narrative Film, W.W. Norton, New York and London, p. 256. ↩
- Pam Cook (ed.), The Cinema Book, 2nd ed., London, BFI, 1999. ↩
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982, p. 2. ↩
- It is as X27 that Sternberg refers to the character in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1988. ↩
- In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud tells the story of a game his grandson invented at the age of one-and-a-half. He used to throw small objects away from him, then say “o-o-o-o” with pleasure. He also took a wooden reel attached to a piece of string, and threw it over the edge of his cot, so that it disappeared. After saying “o-o-o-o,” he would pull it back and say, “da.” He repeated this game over and over. Freud and the boy’s mother understood him to be saying “fort” and “da” (German for gone and there). Freud theorised that this game of disappearance and return allowed the boy to manage his anxiety about the absence of his mother, to whom he was very attached. By controlling the actual presence and absence of an object, he was able to manage the virtual presence of his mother. The fort/da game was the child’s invention of symbolism: the use of one object (wooden reel) to represent another, absent object (mother). ↩
- A phrase taken from Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen vol. 16, no.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6–18. ↩
- She says of her cat that it is “the only thing they let me love”. There are two very important words in that sentence: they and let. ↩
- Kristeva, p. 15. ↩
- Kristeva, p. 9. ↩