Sept/Oct/Nov 2007


A new volume analyzes Dietrich in and out of the seminar room

Caroline Weber

“Even when you are dead,” Marlene Dietrich once wrote to Orson Welles, “you are not safe, not out of reach.” Although a recluse for the last decade of her life, she never quite eluded the intense fascination that dogged her during her seventy years in the limelight, nor did her death, in 1992, at age ninety, succeed in breaking the spell. As Gerd Gemünden and Mary R. Desjardins note in the introduction to their scholarly anthology Dietrich Icon, the Berlin-born actress still provokes, puzzles, and intrigues—and for a variety of reasons. Obviously, in the words of one of the volume’s contributors, Dietrich is “Hollywood’s glamour star par excellence”— her famous face regularly conscripted for luxury ad campaigns (Mont Blanc pens are just one recent example), her name reverently invoked by Madonna in the 1990 paean to fabulousness “Vogue.” But unlike the other screen sirens mentioned in that song—Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Grace Kelly—Dietrich enjoys iconic status for something other than just cool elegance and photogenic allure. Indeed, write Gemünden and Desjardins, both professors at Dartmouth, “one would be hard pressed to point to any other film star whose meaning has had such high stakes for so many cultural projects.” More precisely: “Dietrich—like no other star image—has been central to the discourses of both the polis (e.g., the projects of nationalization) and the academy (e.g., the projects of film theory).”

In plain English, this means that Dietrich has become a singularly important figure on two fronts. First, her vexed relationship to her birthplace—which she permanently abandoned for Hollywood in 1930—created profound and lasting tensions “between Dietrich and ‘her’ Berlin(ers).” (Let the reader beware: Dietrich Icon is lousy with creatively deployed parentheses, unmotivated scare quotes, and other hallmark tics of cumbersome academic writing.) In particular, Dietrich’s decision to support the Allied troops during World War II—and her repeated rebuffing of Joseph Goebbels’s requests for her to participate in the cinema of the Third Reich—made her during the war a turncoat and afterward was a painful reminder of where too many of her compatriots had gone wrong. As a result, although she is arguably “Berlin’s most famous native daughter,” her inclusion in the city’s and in Germany’s cultural legacy has never been assured. With this in mind, several articles in the book explore the far-reaching “debate about (dis)claiming Dietrich for Germany.”

Of the essays in this category, the most persuasive is Erica Carter’s “Marlene Dietrich: The Prodigal Daughter.” Through a close reading of Nazi-era film criticism, Carter shows how Dietrich’s unabashed refusal to return home, along with her films’ dogged subversion of fascist aesthetics, made her a “disruptive element in fantasies of Germany as aesthetic totality and/or integrated nation.” Rooted in the Third Reich dream of racial unity (“people of the same blood should be in the same Reich,” Hitler decreed in Mein Kampf ) and in the conventions of popular German melodrama (“the image of the prodigal daughter, and the narrative of her return”) were audience expectations that Dietrich had no interest in gratifying, on-screen or off-. Her best-known films, Carter reminds us, do not end in the heroine’s homecoming. On the contrary, they present the star much as she was in her life, as an inveterate wanderer marching to a drummer— and a destination—all her own.

Click to enlarge

Poster for Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), directed by Josef von Sternberg, 1930.

Yet Dietrich’s career and reputation have also had ripple effects in the academy (to which, not incidentally, sixteen of the volume’s eighteen contributors belong). Especially since the 1975 publication of Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which explores classic Hollywood cinema’s fetishistic presentation of actresses including Dietrich, “the theorization of Dietrich’s star image and its relation to patriarchal filmic constructions of femininity” has, Gemünden and Desjardins note, been a corner stone of film studies. To familiarize their readers with this scholarly backstory, the editors provide an extensive summary of the many publications that have explored Dietrich’s performances from ideological, formal, and, above all, psychoanalytic perspectives. In their view, the theoretically oriented pieces in Dietrich Icon stand as correctives to much of this earlier work, which has “not always contextualized [Dietrich’s] star image in very specific historical terms.”

The film-theory sections of the volume, however, do not fulfill this promise, for most of them still rely quite explicitly on the psychoanalytic model that Mulvey and company first applied to the star three decades ago. The repressed, in other words, returns with a vengeance, leading Elisabeth Bronfen to analyze Dietrich’s “seductive yet also castrating maternal body” in The Blue Angel (1931); Lutz Koepnick to describe her portrayal, in The Song of Songs (1933), as “a direct product of male desire and fetishistic transferral”; Nora M. Alter to highlight the “fetishistic nature” of the actress’s legs in several different performances; Amy Lawrence to compare one of the diva’s partners in flirtatious radio banter to “Freud’s Dr. Schreber . . . [who] yearn[ed] to be impregnated by a hyperphallic god”; Gaylyn Studlar to discuss Dietrich’s “aloofness from her objectified female subjectivity”; Mark Williams to proclaim her status as the hero’s objet petit a (a Lacanian psychoanalytic concept to which he erroneously refers as “petit objet a”) in Destry Rides Again (1939); and Alice A. Kuzniar to state that “Dietrich appears to enact sadistically the Lacanian law of desire” in Witness for the Prosecution (1958).

With the exception of Alter’s “The Legs of Marlene Dietrich,” which convincingly applies Freud’s musings on castration anxiety to the plight of amputee veterans in Weimar Germany, and Studlar’s “Marlene Dietrich and the Erotics of Code-Bound Hollywood,” which examines the impact of the Hayes Code on the construction of Dietrich’s “‘erotic’ screen persona,” these essays’ psychoanalytic bias leads them away from historical specificity and into transhistorical generalization. (Perhaps the worst offender is Bronfen’s muddled, jargon-ridden reading of The Blue Angel as “a parable that revolves around the flooding of the symbolic by the imaginary and its harsh restitution.”) Admittedly, psychoanalytic criticism has always been vulnerable to this charge, for if time, as Freud declared, does not exist in the unconscious, then deep-seated psychic mechanisms necessarily transcend history. Carter even invokes the “Oedipal desire that, once rebuffed, turns to sadism,” suddenly making Freud, not fascism, the determining factor in the Nazi response to Dietrich.

That Dietrich’s “star image” continues to generate so many psychosexually oriented interpretations is, to be sure, a testament to its abiding erotic power. But insofar as they hew to more or less the same hackneyed framework as their predecessors, this book’s theoretical essays fail both to change the dominant academic paradigm and to appeal to a broader audience. In her fragmentary memoir, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1960), the actress herself pointed out that Dietrich is, in German, “the name for a key that opens all locks.” In Dietrich Icon, libidinal forces are too often presented as the key that opens all locks to the Dietrich enigma. OK, so she triggers a “male regressive subjectivity”; she “queerly transforms her emasculated male leads into ‘girlfriends’”; she offers a “perversion of the maternal gaze”; her daughter’s memoir “makes Dietrich accessible through the ‘family romance’ in which the mother, like the star, is a figure inviting an ambiva- lent affective identification”; she represents an “erotic threat of multiple masquerades.” Surely, though, there are other keys than psychoanalysis, and surely other locks to pick than her overtheorized sexual persona.

This much, in fact, comes through in the brief and refreshingly straightforward essay by Werner Sudendorf with which Dietrich Icon concludes. Sudendorf, who curates Berlin’s Marlene Dietrich Collection, describes how the actress’s personal effects came to be archived after her death. He also itemizes the collection, which includes “50 film and 70 show costumes,” “400 hats and 440 pairs of shoes,” “50 handbags and 150 pairs of gloves,” a thousand articles of clothing “by, among others, Elizabeth Arden, Balenciaga, Balmain, Chanel, Courrèges, Dior, [and] Givenchy,” “2,000 pictures of public appearances,” “1,000 private and family pictures,” “300 posters, drawings, and paintings,” “80 pieces of luggage,” and “about 300,000 sheets of written documents, including letters from Burt Bacharach, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Maurice Chevalier, Noël Coward, Jean Gabin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Willi Forst, Ernest Hemingway . . . Karl Lagerfeld . . . [and] Nancy and Ronald Reagan.”

Open to the public, available to scholars, and almost entirely searchable by computer, this embarrassment of riches practically cries out for further analysis. In Dietrich Icon, costume takes a backseat to castration, Hemingway to homosexuality, and fan mail to fetishism. That is no reason, however, for other commentators not to consider these overlooked dimensions of her life. According to Lutz Koepnick, “her face was all about the process by which we make meaning and put on identities”; might not the same be said about the things she left behind, the material traces of an ethereal icon? “Always,” Sudendorf writes of viewing her possessions, “new aspects of her persona shine through, just as a kaleidoscope, which always relies on the same elements, creates a new image, and shows different colors with each turn.” Dietrich may be dead, she may even have been psychoanalyzed to death, but a lot of archival resources and a little imagination guarantee one thing: She will never be out of reach.

Caroline Weber is an associate professor of French and comparative literature at Barnard College. Her most recent book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (Holt, 2006), will appear in paperback in October.