This lightly sophisticated comedy, indulging in its opportunities at the tail-end of two eras – those of silent cinema, and the Weimar Republic’s Golden Twenties – has something that we might call the Marlene touch. That is, a sense of magic, inexpressible in the best of ways, located in the way the star’s eyes move around the room, the way her gaze moves towards the men she is spying, the zest she brings to her scenes. In Austrian-Czech director Robert Land’s late silent/early sound film, the roots of Dietrich’s later performative sensuality are unmistakable. These roots are in her eyes, in the microcosmic movements of her lips, her cheekbones and dimples that constantly redefine her pout.
Such is the divine screen presence of Marlene Dietrich. The seasoned yet relatively unknown Dietrich had been in a number of films up to this point in 1929, including Land’s earlier film Art of Love (1928), but she was not the main event in I Kiss Your Hand, Madame! At least, in the role of the divorcée Laurence Gerard, she was not cast to be so. The film was made primarily to give a platform to the title song recorded by Richard Tauber, to be performed onscreen by Harry Liedtke, who plays Jacques Lerski. Liedtke was a popular actor in German cinema throughout the 1920s, and presumably his distinctive reputation allowed him the platform of the film. It was clearly for his fans and his persona that the film was intended. Veteran comedian Károly Huszár (credited here as Charles Puffy), gives a sweet performance as Percy Talandier, the corpulent man whom Laurence is stringing along.
And yet here Dietrich shows clear evidence of her own later persona, developed in part through her collaborative years with Josef von Sternberg. To us, now, she is eye-catching because she is the Marlene Dietrich we know; but she must have become that way for a reason. The camera seems irresistibly attracted to her, and her natural sensuality and wit is undeniable present. Gaylyn Studlar writes of the later von Sternberg/Dietrich heroine as “the object of male desire, but she is not the passive object of a controlling look.” 1 In those films Dietrich becomes a “signifying star image,”2 writes Studlar, who is in control of her own look. The precursor to this image, which comes as a revelation in early performance traits, is clear. This effect is difficult to divorce from its original moment because of Dietrich’s significant profile in the present day. Yet, with this knowledge and awareness of who Dietrich would become, Laurence attracts a contemporary audience in every scene, every movement.
It isn’t long into the film when Dietrich first appears on screen, towards the back of the frame, as she exits through a door into the hallways of a modest building interior. As we meet her, she is newly divorced, which codes her as a woman of knowing elegance and confident sexuality. She is then framed in close-up at a vanity table, applying face powder and accoutring herself in jewellery. She touches up her lip rouge. In later roles, the same Dietrich would be seen applying her look at different mirrors; in The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), and Blonde Venus (1932), all with von Sternberg, and in Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937). Throughout her decades-long career, in the cinema and theatre industries, there would be many publicity photographs of her sitting at vanities. With these moments, doubly-mirrored reflections shape and sharpen Dietrich’s image, her persona broken down and deconstructed. As with her on-screen figure, and her control of the look, here she is inviting us to note that, in terms of exuding glamour, she knows what she’s doing.
One of Dietrich’s last silent films, of a sort, this is also significant as it has been regarded as Germany’s first talkie for its single scene, featuring the title song dubbed by Richard Tauber. (The sound portion of the film was lost for decades.) Fred Zinnemann, who would become the significant Hollywood director, worked on set as a camera assistant before emigrating to the United States. Dietrich would work in a few more films in Germany until her life-changing partnership began with von Sternberg; The Three Lovers (1929) with Curtis Bernhardt, who later also transitioned to Hollywood, and then The Ship of Lost Men (1929) with Maurice Tourneur, who had recently moved back to Europe after a significant stretch in the United States.
As I’ve conducted a brief overview of published responses to this film, which has been exhibited a number of times since screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, in 2017, it’s proven difficult to find much appreciation for it. And in Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Dietrich, it gets little more than a filmographic listing.3 But the film is quite charming, with some gorgeous interiors designed by Robert Neppach and lively exterior shots of Paris in the 1920s, shaped around a light plot of mistaken identity and missed connections. In an assessment of Robert Land’s career in Sight and Sound, Olaf Möller writes that the film has a “fabulous sense of tempo” as well as “a perfect feel for the common pathos of dime novels and popular music; an assurance in moving actors through space; a love of details.” 4 And Dietrich, before she is Dietrich, is truly magnetic.
I Kiss Your Hand, Madame/Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (1929 Germany 66 mins)
Prod. Co: Super-Film Production Dir: Robert Land Prod: Julius Haimann, Robert Land Scr: Rolf E. Vanloo Phot: Karl Drews, Gotthardt Wolf Art Dir: Robert Neppach
Cast: Harry Liedtke, Marlene Dietrich, Pierre de Guingand, Charles Puffy, Richard Tauber, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
- Studlar, Gaylyn (1988) In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic, Columbia University Press, p. 48 ↩
- Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure, p. 5 ↩
- Chandler, Charlotte (2011), Marlene Dietrich: A Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster, p. 59 ↩
- Möller, Olaf (2017) “Primal Screen: The Forgotten Land”, Sight and Sound, Sept, p.19 ↩