Marlene Dietrich: 10 essential films

Phenomenally glamorous, Marlene Dietrich worked with some of the greatest directors Hollywood has ever seen, from Alfred Hitchcock to Orson Welles. Here are 10 films to get you started.

1 December 2020

By Chloe Walker

Shanghai Express (1932)

“I’m not an actress, I’m a personality.” Well, she was half right. Marlene Dietrich was more than capable of turning in rich, complex performances, especially in the second half of her time in Hollywood, and yet like many of the all-time great movie stars – Cary Grant is perhaps the best example – she had a fundamental persona from which she rarely strayed. 

She was phenomenally glamorous, and went to great lengths to preserve that image, learning from various directors and cinematographers over the years how she photographed best. She knew the effect she had on men, and revelled in it. And not just men – between her kissing a woman in Morocco (1930), her frequent donning of trousers and tuxedos, and subsequent revelations about her off-screen relationships, she’s become a bisexual icon. She possessed a luxurious confidence, but maintained an inherent mystique that lent her characters a depth that wasn’t always on the page. 

While her persona remained largely unchanged, the projects she chose didn’t. From the 7 visually resplendent movies she made with Josef von Sternberg – the first in her native Germany, the rest after she emigrated to America – to the genre-traversing features with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles later in her life, Dietrich starred in a wealth of fascinating films over the course of her long career. Here are 10 of the best:

The Blue Angel (1930)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

The Blue Angel (1930)

This was the film that started it all for Dietrich: her first collaboration with Josef von Sternberg, the first time she’d sing her famous ‘Falling in Love Again’, and the first time she’d make her mark on the world stage. The Blue Angel was shot simultaneously in English and German, and released to global acclaim. 

She plays showgirl Lola Lola, who becomes the obsession, and the downfall, of Emil Janning’s curmudgeonly Professor Rath. Jannings is the main character here, and it’s he who gets the emotional journey, but whenever Dietrich is on screen, glistening brighter than any of her sparkly costumes, she demands all your attention. 

Shanghai Express (1932)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Shanghai Express (1932)

Directors would consistently struggle to pair Dietrich with male leads who wouldn’t simply wilt beside her sheer iridescence – Clive Brook, her co-star in Shanghai Express, is a prime illustration of said wilting. His performance is so insipid, it’s difficult to imagine him as the great lost love of anyone’s life, much less Dietrich’s.

The lack in that department, however, is more than recompensed by her chemistry with a different co-star: renowned Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. The narrative sees the pair play courtesans who save the passengers of a Shanghai-bound train from a hostage situation. They do so in beguiling, unforgettable style.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Blonde Venus (1932)

One of Dietrich’s more plot-heavy vehicles, Blonde Venus sees her as a housewife who must return to her showgirl past to pay for her critically ill husband’s (Herbert Marshall) medical treatment. A rich, handsome benefactor (Cary Grant) gives her the money, and they develop feelings for each other. When her husband discovers the affair, he declares his intention to leave her and take their little boy away with him. Dietrich beats him to it, going on the run with her son.

Of all the movies she made with Von Sternberg, Blonde Venus gives her the best opportunity to show off her range. She gets to play desperation, grief and fevered determination, and is always grippingly convincing. 

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Dietrich’s penultimate collaboration with Von Sternberg is a real antecedent to recent hits like The Favourite (2018) and The Great (2020), revelling in the opulent madness of royalty, while approaching historical accuracy with a pinch of salt. 

She’s a riot as Catherine the Great, taking her from the innocent ingénue who first arrives in Russia to the devious schemer who overthrows her husband with lip-smacking relish. Her lasciviousness when it comes to Catherine’s various lovers feels scandalous even today – it’s hard to imagine how much of it would have remained if the film had been released just a few months later, when the censoring Hays Code had come into full effect.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Director: George Marshall

Destry Rides Again (1939)

It would be a struggle to find 2 classic-era movie stars with more divergent personas than the worldly Marlene Dietrich and the mild-mannered James Stewart, and yet in Destry Rides Again they work surprisingly well together.

He plays the new deputy charged with cleaning up the raucous western town of Bottleneck; she a saloon singer who had a large hand in dirtying it. Of course – against a background of drunkenness, gunfights and related shenanigans – their initial sparring soon turns to love. Dietrich starred in a number of westerns during the late 1930s and early 40s, and Destry Rides Again is one of the most enjoyable.

The Spoilers (1942)

Director: Ray Enright

The Spoilers (1942)

Another of Dietrich’s enjoyable westerns is The Spoilers, set in Alaska during the Nome Gold Rush at the beginning of the 20th century. Again, it’s a boisterous tale, packed to the gills with larger-than-life characters (and a few unfortunate moments of racial insensitivity, including the horrendous sight of John Wayne in blackface), but whenever Dietrich is on screen, she dominates. As usual. She plays a saloon owner who finds herself the focal point of a love triangle with Wayne and Randolph Scott, a feud which ends with a spectacular bar brawl between the 2 men. 

A Foreign Affair (1948)

Director: Billy Wilder

A Foreign Affair (1948)

As with Shanghai Express, this is a case of Dietrich and her female co-star (this time Jean Arthur, who came out of retirement for the role) saving the movie from the lacklustre male lead (John Lund, described by writer-director Billy Wilder as “the guy you got after you wrote the part for Cary Grant and Grant wasn’t available”).

A love triangle shot in occupied Berlin shortly after the end of the Second World War, A Foreign Affair is one of Wilder’s most underrated films. Dietrich and Arthur – both nearing 50, both on the form of their lives – are luminous, and Wilder’s typically brilliant screenplay gives them plenty to work with. 

Stage Fright (1950)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stage Fright (1950)

Dietrich plays a glamorous actress who may have killed her husband; Jane Wyman, in love with the man the police suspect, goes undercover to investigate and clear his name.

Sadly, this was the only time Dietrich ever worked with Alfred Hitchcock, who – respecting the skills she’d picked up from working with the greats over her long career – gave her unusual creative latitude in her lighting and camera angles. Perhaps due to this, or perhaps just because she’s the most interesting actor here (with the exception of Alistair Sim as Wyman’s father), her scenes are by far the highlight of a mediocre Hitchcock effort. 

Touch of Evil (1958)

Director: Orson Welles

Touch of Evil (1958)

Although she appears for less than 10 minutes, Dietrich makes a big impact as the Mexican madam who knew Orson Welles’s corrupt police chief in the days before he’d lost his way. Dietrich and Welles were great friends in real life and respected each other’s talent immensely: he wrote the character, who doesn’t appear in the source novel, especially for her. 

In their few scenes together, their easy rapport evokes a weighty shared history and lends pathos to Welles’s otherwise detestable villain. And Dietrich is the last person we see, walking off into the sunset, before the closing credits roll.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Director: Stanley Kramer

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

While she’d make a couple of cameo appearances before retiring from cinema altogether, Judgement at Nuremberg featured Dietrich’s last substantial role. She plays the widow of an executed war criminal, whose old home is now hosting the chief judge (Spencer Tracy) presiding over the Nuremberg trials. She and Tracy have several conversations about life under Hitler and what will happen to Germany now his reign of terror is over (the film is set in 1948).

In a movie of big, showy acting, Dietrich’s restrained turn has an affecting quiet power. She’d worked tirelessly against the Nazis during the Second World War and found portraying someone who professed to hate Hitler and yet uncomplainingly benefitted from his despotism nauseating. It may have been that inner turmoil that made this performance one of her richest.