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- September 03, 1984
- Vol. 22
- No. 10
Few Stars Shone So Long. Now Dietrich, a Recluse for Years, Talks of Life, War and Love in a Remarkable German Documentary
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago?*
*Words by Pete Seeger as sung by Marlene Dietrich
"If she had nothing more than her voice," Ernest Hemingway wrote, "she could break your heart with it," and another time he said, "She knows more about love than anyone." "Your beauty is its own poet, its own praise," Jean Cocteau told her. Ads for her first U.S. movie, Morocco, in 1930 proclaimed her "The woman all women want to see!" and by 1936, when David O. Selznick gave her $200,000 for The Garden of Allah, she was said to be the highest-paid woman in the world. That same year London police had to be called out four times when she went to the theater, and Adolf Hitler, who sometimes made his staff watch The Blue Angel four times at one sitting, tried to woo her back to Germany by sending her a Christmas tree; Dietrich kept his messenger waiting three days and then turned down the tree. The next year the German embassy tried again, and still later Hitler ordered his ambassador to London, Baron von Ribbentrop, to offer her a triumphal welcome if she came back. She sent him away, saying they had not been properly introduced. From 1943 to 1946 she devoted all her time to entertaining Allied troops in Europe and making broadcasts for the U.S. Army, for which she won France's Legion of Honor. In 1976, having shot 53 movies and seduced audiences from Broadway to Buenos Aires with her one-woman cabaret act, she said she planned to be buried in a small French village that Charles de Gaulle picked out for her. Why there? "Because it has a four-star restaurant," she said. "When the tourists stop by, they can enjoy a superb meal. And after that, feeling very well, they can come and visit me."
And that said, Dietrich, long an admirer of Garbo, retired and quietly closed her door.
Marlene Dietrich: A documentary about me should concern the people involved, the faces, tales of how it was and how it could have been, explaining to audiences which parts I played, showing how I first went to the U.S.A. by boat—at that time people still went by boat—and then you could show my arrival in New York. There is ample newsreel material around. And then you show excerpts from the first movie I made in Hollywood, etc. Maximilian Schell: Would you find this exciting?
Dietrich: My contract doesn't say anything that I have to be exciting.
Marlene, a 90-minute movie directed by Schell, is unusual in three ways. Even though it is a documentary, it is one of the most acclaimed films in Germany this year. It contains the first extensive interview with Dietrich (in German) in almost a decade, 60 minutes of which are on the sound track, the rest being music. And the person it is about, who is seen in old stills, clips and newsreels, never appears as she is today.
Dietrich lives in a three-room apartment on the fifth floor of an elegant building on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a city she always loved, but she says, "America, if you ask me, is what I call home." She broke her hip in 1975 and again in 1981 and spends much of her time in bed, tended by a housekeeper and a 53-year-old male secretary. But she still gets up at 6 a.m. to dust and polish and care for her plants, still loves to cook and still sees a small circle of friends. She suggested Schell for her documentary, which she had been pondering for some time. Earlier candidates included Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder, who, when approached by her agent, replied, "If Marlene wants a director, let her contact me herself." That ended negotiations.
An actor, director, playwright, poet and lady-killer, Schell, 53, loves to play the piano in his Munich villa surrounded by his art, which includes Picassos, one El Greco and Mark Rothko's last painting. He is a relaxing but persistent interviewer, and he and Marlene talked for 12 hours, spread over seven days. At one point in the movie Dietrich sings, in a voice that is still sexy, the first lines of some favorite German songs, including one that starts, "All Berlin is crazy for my legs." Several times Schell disputes her memories, politely and with no success. "She told me she never met Max Reinhardt or Charlie Chaplin, yet there are photos showing her with each of them," he points out. "But who cares? When do you meet a person? When you shake hands?" He also thinks his failure to photograph Dietrich was a benefit in disguise, although she remains "stunning." "It gives you the chance to let your fantasy go," he says of his film, which has aroused the interest of American distributors. "You see what you want to see. There are two kinds of actors—the exhibitionists and those who hide behind a mask. All her life Marlene was wearing that mask. The real Marlene has never been visible. Her mind is filled with the creation of a legend, as she conceives it."
Dietrich was born in Berlin in 1904 or 1901 and stands 5'5". Her father was a World War I German officer, who died when she was small, and her mother was described as "very aristocratic and domineering." Dietrich was christened Maria Magdalene, and her grandchildren call her "Mussy," a corruption of "Missy." "You couldn't call her Grandma," her daughter, Maria Riva, once said. She calls herself Mama, and she raised Maria, now 59, by two rules: 1) Never embarrass anyone, even if you embarrass yourself, and 2) Never do anything you don't like to do.
Her first part was Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in a costume that slanted across one breast. A Berlin critic reported the next morning, "The only thing I remember is the flesh of Hippolyta." In 1924, auditioning for a movie called Tragedy of Love, she met a handsome, blond, Czech casting director named Rudolph Sieber and they were married six weeks later. "He asked for my hand," she told Schell. "I said, 'Well, okay, if you insist.' " They stayed married until his death in 1976, but he was not the only man in her life; some of the others were Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, Joe DiMaggio, Hemingway and the novelist Erich Maria Remarque. Probably the most important was director Josef von Sternberg, who saw her in a 1929 revue called Two Neckties and auditioned her for The Blue Angel. She got the part, even though one of his assistants said of her, "Not at all bad from behind, but don't we also need a face?" In 1930, when von Sternberg came to Hollywood, Dietrich followed. "I came because I wanted to work with him," she has said. "I would have gone to China."
Dietrich's attitude toward the Germans has been complicated. "I am a Prussian," she once said. "It is the key to my character." But she loathed Hitler for his treatment of Jews, and during the Second World War she ate and slept alongside American troops as near the front as she could get. Once, after escaping from Eupen, Belgium with bullets flying overhead during the Battle of the Bulge, she immediately pushed to get back near the front again. Gen. George Patton called her. "Aren't you scared?" he asked. "I said, 'Yeah,' " she recalled later. "He laughed and said, 'Okay.' " Friends said she absolutely hated the Germans and was against rebuilding the country after the war. "Let them all raise potatoes," she declared and couldn't understand why the feeling wasn't mutual. "If they had any character," she said, "they'd hate me." But remembering her postwar visits to Germany, she told Schell, "They loved me and hated me at the same time. Sure, there were some nice people too—Willy Brandt, and there was that real Berlin woman who came to see me and said, 'Do we want to make up again?' They wanted Fuhrer," she concluded. "They got themselves their Führer."
Schell: Why do you refuse to have yourself photographed?
Dietrich: I have been photographed to death. I simply don't want it anymore.
Schell:... Could I then at least photograph your apartment?
Dietrich: Never. Never. No. No...I have never mixed privacy with my profession. Surely it would be very amusing for you if you could have your camera all over me, but no. I have refused this to many, to some very famous people before. No one has, no one ever will, enter my private world.
"They want you to bring out your intestines," Dietrich once said of interviewers, and probably she was right. Still, much is known. In 1951 a longtime friend described her as "a cook first, a grandmother second and everything else thrown in for good measure." She loves to send friends flowers and sit up late talking. She was one of the first women to shave her eyebrows, would have 18 fittings for a single gown, and with her pants and shirts invented the cross-gender look that is currently popular. Yet she once said, "I never wore anything for publicity." She used to spend 10 days Christmas shopping and wrap every present herself; she was friendly and generous to the lowliest people on her sets. In 1963, around 60, she climbed eight flights when the elevator was out of order to bring French director Claude Chabrol's ailing baby a special cream. She doesn't care for women's liberation. "Men are better than women," she once said, and she told Schell, "You know that in the universities they weighed the brains of women against those of men. Well, it turned out that women have only half the brain. Excepting, of course, my mother and my daughter." She once called her war work "the only important thing I've ever done."
In 1952 Tom Prideaux of LIFE was editing a piece on Dietrich, who appeared in his office one afternoon, announcing, "I have come to help with the pictures and the layout." Around 4 Prideaux sent out for champagne—he joked that that was a daily custom at LIFE. The next day two bottles of champagne arrived at his office with a note: "It's 4 o'clock. Marlene."
Schell: When you revisited Berlin, did you go to the scenes of your childhood?
Dietrich: No, no...I never gave a damn.
Schell: May I at least know where your house stood?
Dietrich: Not the slightest idea...I am interested only in what is today. I was an actress. I made my movies. And that was it.
Schell: You never are a dreamer?
Dietrich: No, no. I am a practical person, a logical person. Do you understand? No dreams for me. I worked all my life....
Schell: Do you ever look at your movies?
Dietrich: Never. They don't interest me.
Schell: But you made some very good movies in your time.
Dietrich: No, not really...I must tell you that I never took my career seriously. This doesn't mean that I didn't perform very correctly, that I didn't do my duty. But I was never impressed by my work.
In 1963 a young man who was the TV editor of a newsmagazine was invited by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace to be a juror at the annual Monaco TV festival. The youngest on the jury, a no-name amid stars and ambassadors, armed only with rusted French against the tongues of many nations, he spent six days watching TV, living in a grand hotel and chatting at the palace, and on Friday Marlene Dietrich arrived to perform at a gala. For an act she had done hundreds of times, she rehearsed Friday afternoon, Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. That night the young man, who was married, sat alternately relishing the pomp and seething with indignation because—royal protocol ruling that a woman at the head table must have her first dance with a gentleman from the head table—he couldn't do the Charleston with Gina Lollobrigida. Then the lights went down, and Marlene Dietrich walked onstage to entertain. Shimmering and wise, sometimes sad and sometimes raucous, exquisite in appearance, movement and inflection, she sang Falling in Love Again and See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have and Lili Marlene. And then the lights grew soft, and Marlene Dietrich sang another song:
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls picked them every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
When it was all over, the young man knew that he would never again hear anything so beautiful, unless he was very lucky. Early the next morning, bleary and under-slept, he got on a plane to Paris and found Marlene Dietrich, in work pants and shirt, four rows in front of him. He wanted to get up and thank her, but she looked occupied. And anyway, she had heard the applause. So he decided to stay in his seat, because there is more than one way to pay one's respects.
Twenty-one years went by. The young man worked here, worked there, wrote this, wrote that, stayed married, and one morning last week, after plopping two eggs in the pan for breakfast, put a record on the phonograph and lowered the needle to Band 8. Marlene Dietrich sang the song again. Tears formed at the edges of his eyes again. The questions went unanswered again. And then the young man went out and looked at his garden and smiled.
- Franz Spelman.
February 09, 2016
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