Picks and Pans Review: Marlene

updated 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Don't try to categorize this hypnotic hodgepodge as documentary, detective story or celebrity biography. Just settle back and enjoy a mesmerizing film. Actor-director Maximilian Schell has taken on the 'formidable task of telling us about the enduring sex siren and Teutonic terror who is Marlene Dietrich. Now 85, Dietrich, in declining health, is a recluse in Paris. In 1982 she allowed Schell to audiotape interviews with her at home but refused to face a camera. "I've been photographed enough," the star of 48 movies chided the man with whom she acted in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg. Schell almost dropped the project. Instead, he devised a form that allows the audience to share in solving the mystery of Dietrich. We watch as Schell and his crew reconstruct Dietrich's apartment in a studio and study photos and newsreels of her life. Through it all we hear that husky Dietrich voice, by turns cranky, caressing and contentious. Throw out the glamour stuff, she tells Schell, while we see a film clip of temptress Marlene singing her trade-marked Falling in Love Again from The Blue Angel in 1930. "Nein, nein, I wasn't erotic," she says. "I was snotty." In that same year's Morocco with Gary Cooper, she shocks as a nightclub singer garbed in a man's suit and kissing a female patron full on the lips. How apt that Dietrich's last film, 1978's Just a Gigolo, co-starred her with that other specialist in androgyny, David Bowie. "Rubbish! Kitsch!" she shouts as Schell confronts her with her work on film and in concert. She's lying, of course. You can hear the pride in her voice when she describes working with Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Hitchcock. If her memory of her Berlin childhood has lapses (she describes herself as an only child, conveniently forgetting her older sister, Elisabeth), her hatred of what Hitler did to her homeland rings fiercely. Through Schell's expert wheedling, the husk of cynicism that Dietrich uses to guard her feelings is eventually cracked. For those too young to know Dietrich, this remarkable film stands as a primer on an extraordinary woman and the epoch on which she made a mark. For those who lived through some of those times with her, if only on screen, Marlene is a case of falling in love again. (Not rated)

From Our Partners