The unification of East and West Germany, which ushered in the last decade the twentieth century, was followed by two remarkable events that brought Berlin back the limelight. The mortal remains of two famous Prussians were to be returned to their soil: Frederick the Great (1712-1786) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992).
‘Old Fritz’ might have been dead for over 200 years, but he lived on in popular memory in dual incarnations of the strong military who fought tooth and nail to defend the conquests made at the beginning of his reign, and as an ‘homme de Iettres’, musician and correspondent of Voltaire.
During the Second World his remains were transferred to a safe as a ‘national monument’, and were then in the West for safe-keeping during the Cold War. Their ceremonial return to Sanssouci Castle in Berlin was staged like a set from Disneyworld, with a nineteenth-century railway train carrying his remains chugging its way through the reunited German lands.
The same firm of undertakers who transported Frederick back to Berlin feet first was also responsible for the interment of Marlene Dietrich. Both celebrities enjoy a definite, if different, place in the political symbolism of German culture, with a common low point between 1933 and 1945, when Frederick featured largely on the cinema screens of the Nazi era, played chiefly by Otto Gebühr, as the great advocate of tenacity on the battlefield, while Dietrich went over to the other side and became an American citizen whose first return to Germany was in the company of the combat troops of the American Allies.
When Frederick’s remains were brought to Berlin as the ‘common legacy’ of the reunited German states, the event sparked debates about his desirability as a popular symbol, at least among critical historians who did not see the Prussian warlord as an ideal role model for the citizens of the new state. But unity seemed at least to ensure that the feared (or desired) reaction to the funeral was not too vociferous, and public enthusiasm seemed decently restrained.
All the more astonishing, then, was the discord that accompanied Dietrich’s burial. “The reactions to this funeral are extreme”, an employee of the undertaker told Berlin’s Tageszeitung. “Our company buried Old Fritz as well. But it wasn’t like this. There have been ugly letters and threatening phone calls”.
When, to many people’s surprise, she asked to be laid to rest in Berlin, next to her mother, Marlene Dietrich, who proudly cited the Prussian virtues as the secret of her success, who had never played down her origins in the family of a Prussian officer, was hounded to the grave.
The attitude of the people of Berlin to Marlene Dietrich – if not the attitude of Marlene Dietrich to Berlin – has been subject to much interpretation. Berlin’s city council promised a dignified memorial and funeral service, at which it would be clearly expressed that it was proud to give the international star a final resting-place, and which would obscure the memory of the vituperative welcome given Dietrich by the people of Berlin in the 60s.
But the promised flowers – metaphorical and real – were missing. Admittedly some florists had ordered up large numbers of red roses, which they distributed themselves to passing mourners, but the public ceremony to which friends and fellow-stars were to be invited was called off at the last minute.
According to dissenting diplomatic statements, the reasons lay not with the Cannes Film Festival, which supposedly meant that the major stars were too busy to attend, but rather in the political arena. The vox pops included voices that still considered Dietrich a “traitor to her country”, a star who had pledged allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and come back to Germany in an American uniform.
The politicians hid their anxiety behind excuses about the lack of time for preparation, which were dismissed by the theatre management commissioned to stage the event. They complained that at the last minute the city politicians were simply unprepared to put enough money into the event, as the financial commitment would have required a greater degree of political legitimation than German history was willing to bestow on the emigree. In the end, in a form of political victory for the emergent right, it did not appear prudent for as much money to be spent on Dietrich as on the Prussian king.
But why did Dietrich remain an effective political symbol for so many years? Why should she be regarded so ambivalently, despite the official desire for her merits as a committed opponent of National Socialism to be acknowledged? The few returning emigres and politically active resistance fighters were treated after 1945 with suspicion and hatred, and ostracised.
They included both Willy Brandt and Marlene Dietrich. To anyone who remembers the smear campaigns that afflicted Willy Brandt as Mayor of Berlin and Federal Chancellor, it will come as no surprise that Dietrich too provoked ambivalent reactions on her few visits to the Federal Republic. Her political involvement touched a raw nerve: she had, after all, taken sides against Nazism on the simplest possible grounds: that it did not take any great knowledge or insight to be opposed to a regime that gassed little children and presented the fact as a heroic deed – indeed, anyone who trusted his or her moral feelings could immediately see that this regime could not be right.
When she fought beside the American troops during the war, she did so because she believed that all Germans were guilty for this war, and so felt obliged, as a German, to shoulder responsibility for it by standing side by side with the Allies and helping to bring it to an end as quickly as possible.
What Dietrich did was to highlight the incomprehensible scandal that the overwhelming majority of Germans, if they had not actively supported the National Socialist regime, had nonetheless condoned it. The fact that they had in the process broken fundamental rules of humanity and humaneness, a crime formulated by the judges at the Nuremberg trials, was given a new form in Dietrich’s repeated reference to Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law”), in a manner so plain, a child could have understood it.
One of the ideas current in the 50s, designed to make the fearsome learning-process psychologically easier, was of the entire, childlike German people in thrall to an all-powerful seducer whom they were helpless to oppose. And the fact that Dietrich, the glamorous seductress, had remained immune to Nazi offers to return to the greater glory of Germany on her homeland’s cinema screens, and instead greeted the German Jewish emigrants from the studios in Babelsberg and the Berlin theatre with open arms, that she had remained autonomous in her political and human decisions, divided her more deeply than anything else from the German audience.
Not only did she embody the idea of the ‘better Germany’ and a counterforce to the rigid marches of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, but also, unlike Riefenstahl, she was not Hitler’s “relative being”, almost his favourite daughter, but instead the ruler of a different Empire, with different needs.
Prussia’s martial fantasies are clearly influenced by an imaginary “topography of the sexes” (Sigrid Weigel): a pole of paranoid male purity, in relation to which women are grouped either as “relative beings” of the male (Sartre), their function determined in relation to him, or as exotic invaders and seducers whose sensuality is a destructive threat.
Dietrich played a historical part in this projective topography of nations, races and sexes, and the coincidence of her departure for Hollywood with the rise of National Socialism turned her portrayal of Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) into an image iconic of both memory and leaving: the image of a woman as openly sexual and lascivious as she is motherly; an image that died, along with the Weimar Republic, in National Socialism.
The intensity with which this image affected contemporary viewers as a ‘promesse de bonheur’ is readily apparent in reviews and descriptions of the film. It is no coincidence that Berlin’s Tageszeitung printed a previously unpublished text by Franz Hessel from the 20s on the occasion of Dietrich’s death.
It contained the following passage: “Those dangerous women incarnated by Marlene Dietrich do not give one the feeling that they mean too much harm. As cheery Lola from the Blue Angel, she takes the schoolteacher’s ruffled, bearded head in her kind and maternal hands, pats the cheeks of this man, so tenderly enchanted by her, as though he were a child, looks up at her poor victim with a bridal smile when he makes this supremely unworthy woman his wife, and smiles him his dream of pure happiness”.
The strong maternal aura described by Hessel could only work with an image of motherliness that did not eschew sexuality. A highly ambivalent image, certainly, just as most of Dietrich’s images are ambiguous, playing with sex without repressing it.
In Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932) she also plays a mother-whore figure, who becomes the projected ideal of her own son and of a series of other men. And later, Orson Welles works with the same image in Touch of Evil (1958): older now, and somewhat the worse for wear, she holds a cooking-pot in her shabby room with the same nonchalant expression with which she wears her sensational dress.
If we read, against Hessel’s yearning description from the 20s, a post-war review of one of Dietrich’s London appearances from a German language newspaper, it is striking to note how strongly eroticism is now portrayed as betrayal, prostitution as business, Dietrich as an old procuress, as if a clearly pejorative attitude had to be enforced to counteract the ambivalence of the old maternal image: “To hear Marlene’s ‘whisky-tenor’ and get a glimpse under her skirts, sent soaring by a sophisticated wind machine”, complained a tabloid article, “you pay a good 1400 Schillings a ticket… Marlene, not only ‘the most charming grandmother in the world’ but also dazzlingly good at calculation, is well aware of this. In the end, her life was not led only for ‘falling in love again’ but just as much for money” (Der Mittag, 16 October 1956).
These few lines reveal not only their hatred for the successful woman, but also overflow with anti-British and misogynist sentiment. The woman with the “whisky tenor” was clearly not a real woman (with a proper soprano voice); her appearance and charm were all calculated, a mechanical means of seduction from Britain’s foreign shores.
Dietrich’s discovery was not the secret sexuality of the mother figure, but an image of bisexuality which, counter to all her assertions, was part of her aura from Berlin of the 20s – in her performances with Margo Lion, for example. So it should come as no surprise that much of her audience throughout was drawn from various subcultures.
That her funeral in Berlin became a catwalk for the city’s transvestites transformed it into a lively affair, while her appropriation by the lesbian and feminist subcultures has sought to release her from the image of a female icon designed for the male gaze.
But the fact that Dietrich could be received in this way, regardless of what she might have thought of it herself, together with the ironically fragmented non-identity of her roles and portrayals, led to accusations of ambivalence in Germany. She might have been a star during the regrettably short-lived Weimar Republic; she might have been a star in 20s Berlin; she might always have stressed her German origins – but she did not become a German star in her lifetime: Germany had exorcised images of women like her from its culture at least by the time of National Socialism.
And Marlene’s homecoming, too, was ambivalent. What was at issue is not so much her motives and intentions, her identity or her career, as the internal constitution of the culture from which she derived her formative images.
When a German critic attending a concert by Dietrich in London during the 70s irritably noted that she was singing in German, he invented some adventurous constructions in which, drawing on his Prussian legacy, he experienced the sensuality of her aura as German, and interpreted its germanic qualities as a kind of ‘catalogue of masculinity’.
Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 12 February 1975, he reflected: “Whatever the case may be – since that evening it has been clear how incredibly important for Marlene Dietrich’s authentic sound is that gutturally hard and sibilant language, the rhythm of those teutonic accents, the aggressive mixture of nuance and command. Perhaps it was only the exotic appeal of hearing the seductress of German singing – still so very German – that made the English audience rapturously applaud her German songs. More important to me was the certainty, both patriotic and depressing, that what Marlene Dietrich expresses in terms of melancholy, brazenness and corrupt pride, she can express only in the German language, and that every English version from ‘The Blue Angel’ to ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ sounds like a thin copy of the wonderfully strong German original”.
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.