My Time On the Set With Marlene Dietrich

by Rory MacLean

Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.

Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle.

Hence history broods in Berlin. Its legends, both real and imagined, stalk the streets: Lenin drinks at the same café as David Bowie’s heroes, Wim Wender’s trench-coated angels wing above torch-lit Nazi processions, Dietrich shops alongside Sally Bowles at KaDeWe, le Carré’s George Smiley watches the packed trains leave for Auschwitz.

I first came to the city because of two of its legends. In the late 1970s I was fresh out of film school, a young assistant director on Just a Gigolo, a movie starring David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. At the time Dietrich was 77 years old, a recluse, living in isolation in Paris. Seventeen years had passed since her last appearance in a movie. Fifty years since von Sternberg had cast her in The Blue Angel. It took the producer six months to convince her to accept the role. Every time he telephoned her apartment, a woman would breath into the receiver.

‘This is the maid. Madame is lunching in Versailles.’

The ‘maid’ was Dietrich, of course.

We were told that she was too busy, that she was writing her memoirs. In truth she was frightened of being unable to live up to her legend, frightened of the toll of years. But in the end the chance to sing on screen one of the songs from her cabaret days proved to be too enticing.

At first the old woman who mounted the steps of the film studio brought back no memories of Shanghai Express. She wore a tired denim suit and hid by the door. Her lips quivered as we were introduced to her. She refused to take off her dark glasses. The makeup artist moved to her side, and spirited her away into the dressing room.

Two hours passed before she reappeared, wearing a wide brim hat and deep veil over her face. In costume she began to find her confidence, the clothes helping to ease her into the role. She walked onto the set without assistance, sat down and let her long skirt — split to the thigh — slip open. A woman of half her age would have been satisfied with those legs. As the crew tried not to stare, a smile fleeted across her face.
Marlene-Dietrich-Just-A-Gigolo
Marlene Dietrich in Just A Gigolo. Image is in the public domain, via Art Finding.

To boost further her confidence Raymond Bernard, her pianist, started to play Falling in Love Again. Dietrich stood by the piano and listened, then insisted on its retuning. ‘Otherwise you know what people are,’ she said to me, ‘they will be sure to think it’s me.’

As she would only sing once, we decided to run two cameras. I was asked to operate the second one. The lights were checked. Exposure and focus set. We took our positions, settled ourselves, waited for, ‘Quiet please. Turn over. Sound rolling. Speed. Mark it. Scene 503 take 1. And action…’’

I looked through the lens, and my eyes deceived me. There was no old woman standing before me. Instead the veil and a soft focus filter had transformed her. The key light caught her eyes and I saw the star of Blonde Venus and Touch of Evil, the legendary Dietrich.

Dietrich sang a song from her Kurfürstendamm days, Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo. The cameras purred. Celluloid glided through the magazine. She sang in English, ‘There will come a day/Youth will pass away/Then what will they say about me?’

In all it lasted maybe three minutes, but the intimacy stayed with us. After the cameras had cut, we remained silent. Then burst into spontaneous applause. Dietrich smiled once more and the photographer shot stills until he started to shake.

Dietrich then called the crew around her. She talked to us about her beloved, lost Berlin. Half a lifetime earlier as the Nazi had risen to power, Dietrich had left the city of her birth, becoming an American citizen in 1939, doing extended USO battlefield tours in Italy, France and Belgium, returning to Berlin in 1945 wearing an U.S. Army uniform. Some Germans never forgave her, confusing the true meanings of both loyalty and freewill during those dark, tortured days. On the film set in 1977 Dietrich said to me and others, ‘There are many people who imagine I betrayed Germany during the war… They forget I was never – never – against Germany. I was against the Nazis. Even the press seems not to comprehend that. You can’t know how it feels… I lost my country, and I lost my language. No one who hasn’t gone through that can know what I feel.’

Then she gathered herself and left the set, the last set that she would ever perform on, the crew standing in a line to the door, applauding.


RORY MACLEAN has known three Berlins: West Berlin, where he made movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich; East Berlin, where he researched his first book, Stalin’s Nose; and the unified capital where he lives today. He is the author of nine books and has won awards from the Canada Council and Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship. He was an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominee and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His latest book is BERLIN: Portrait of a City Through the Ages

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