Article abstract: Never a great actress, Marlene Dietrich established herself worldwide in a career that began in the infancy of the film industry, largely on the strength of her image as the modern femme fatale, glamorous, self-confident, erotic, and independent.
In 1907, when her father suddenly died from a heart attack after being thrown from a horse, Maria Magdalena Dietrich—or Leni, as she was then known—was enrolled in the Auguste-Victoria School for Girls in the Nürnbergstrasse, Berlin. There she remained for the next dozen years while her widowed mother remarried (to Eduard von Losch, a colonel in the Royal Grenadiers) and Germany’s Wilhelmian capital moved ever closer to the Great War. For Leni and her older sister Leisel (Elisabeth), it was a time of rigorous but not unpleasant routine, a time to take music lessons, to learn French and English, and to practice the deportment expected of an officer’s daughter in a bustling city envied by much of Europe for its prosperity, military spit and polish, and wide variety of entertainment.
When the war came, things changed quickly. The holiday mood that had greeted its outbreak by a confident nation vanished as the number of German casualties soared. Food rationing, shortages of every kind, and growing lists of killed and wounded dominated everyday life. In school, the girls knitted gloves, sweaters, and scarves for the troops at the front. Leni’s favorite teacher, Marguerite Bréguand, a young woman with whom she had eagerly practiced her French, was now gone. Indeed, the speaking of French and English had come to be perceived as almost treasonous.
Classmates appeared in the cold and gloomy schoolrooms wearing new black bands on the sleeves of their heavy sweaters, indicating the deaths of male relatives. Leni wore one, too, when, in 1918, her stepfather died in Russia.
That same year, World War I ended. Leni Dietrich had not missed her second father, a remote figure. Instead, she had enjoyed the additional freedom won at his departure and the company of women: her sister, mother, aunt, and grandmother. For the remainder of her life, she had mixed feelings about men, often preferring those in distress, but she treasured relationships with—including romantic attachments to—those of her own sex.
In Berlin, unemployment and inflation raged. Youthful prostitutes haunted street corners. The urge to forget found expression in the new lifestyles of the jazz age, breeding excesses of every kind. Yet Leni—now calling herself “Marlene” (an elision of Maria and Magdalene), found the Roaring Twenties exhilarating. A new name, a new city, new habits—such as smoking and wearing men’s attire—and a new life seemed to suit her. Photographs from these years show not the Dietrich of prominent cheekbones with heavily lidded eyes, but a plump, not-very-tall flapper with bobbed hair, cloche hats, and a tiny red mouth.
Marlene enrolled in drama school and auditioned for whatever parts were available at Berlin’s theaters and new film studios. In 1922, she landed her first role in a forgotten silent film, Der kleine Napoleon (1923; little Napoleon). The next year saw her in Tragödie der Liebe (1923; Tragedy of Love, 1923) starring Emil Jannings, a widely known actor of stage and screen. On that set, she met Rudolf Sieber, whom she married on May 17, 1923. Sieber, the father of her only child, Maria, born on December 13, 1924, remained her husband until his death in the United States in 1976. Their relationship, which was exemplary in many ways, did not long include marital fidelity. Both turned to other sexual partners; Marlene acquired scores of them in her long life, a practice that was only whispered about during her years of fame.
Marlene appeared briefly in a number of films and plays until 1930, when she found herself sharing the screen again with Emil Jannings in the German-language film Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1931). The Blue Angel was the brainchild of Josef von Sternberg. While the “von” was bogus, the man decidedly was not. His discovery of Marlene and hers of him has the drama of the Pygmalion myth, for like Pygmalion, who turned his statue into a living woman, Sternberg turned a pudgy starlet into Marlene Dietrich—while falling in love with her. The Blue Angel tells the story of a pompous teacher who is undone by a cabaret temptress who shows lots of black silk-clad leg and sings in a smoky contralto. On the strength of The Blue Angel’s European success and von Sternberg’s recommendations, Paramount Pictures beckoned, believing that Dietrich could be an appropriate competitor for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s smoldering Swedish beauty Greta Garbo.
The 1930’s witnessed the creation of the Dietrich legend, the fabulous American film star of Hollywood’s golden age. Earning enormous sums in the Depression (in 1936, she was the highest-paid woman in...