Friday, 28 February 2014

Marlene - cipher, allegory, fantasy, queer

To call Marlene 'lesbian' would not be quite accurate. To call her bisexual would also not tell the whole story. Perhaps 'queer' describes her best or simply, as one commentator said, 'unstraight'.

She made love to those she was attracted to at any particular time in her life, their gender was immaterial. This is extraordinary, given that most of her career was built on being the ultimate fetish object for straight men. The film critic Kenneth Tynan defined this bisexual appeal when he said "she has sex without gender."
"Dietrich was a legendary movie star, but she was much, much more than that - she was a cipher, an allegory, someone who could fulfil any fantasy or fit any construction. But most of all she was entirely her own woman whose amazingly full life was an example that all of us can take inspiration from."
Thus Terry Sanderson (president of the National Secular Society and lifelong Marlene obsessive) described his idol, a tribute to whose life he lavishly presented for us last night at the twee Conway Hall as part of the celebrations for Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2014.

Mr Sanderson took us on a journey all the way from Miss Dietrich's early Berlin life, her transformation from podgy teenager into the glittering god-like creature beloved of photographers, queens and audiences the world over, her determination to decry the devastation the Nazis had wrought upon her homeland and its people (mainly by working her proverbial arse off, entertaining the Allied troops), and her love-hate relationship with Hollywood - and its leading ladies and men.

Juicy titbits emerged, such as the fact she once shared a wealthy lover with Garbo (Mercedes de Acosta), her views on religion were singularly scathing (“I lost my faith during the war and can't believe they are all 'up there', flying around or sitting at tables, all those I've lost,” she said), and her fabled last screen appearance opposite David Bowie in (the universally panned) Just A Gigolo was actually filmed hundreds of miles away from her co-star as she refused to leave Paris for the studio in Berlin where the film was being made; they had to build a re-creation just for her, opposite her apartment.

But it was her sexual allure and defiant self-determination that most explains her enduring legendary status, and it remains a favourite topic of gossip even today.

According to her daughter Maria's tell-all biography/expose, "Marlene used sex as a kind of weapon in her affairs with men - she didn't actually care much for "it". It was a way of controlling and manipulating them. With women it was different. Marlene actually enjoyed the sex, and the relationships were much more satisfying for her."

The late Maximilian Schell (who made an academy award-nominated documentary about Marlene in 1984) said of her: "She was a typical Berlin woman who could handle king and beggar with equal adroitness, and she was totally open about her homosexual relationships. I had the impression that Marlene did not converse with the people she met but rather wanted to provoke them. There was a spirit of confrontation in the air wherever she was."

Among the rarer bits of footage Terry Sanderson unearthed for our delight was this clip of her successful audition for The Blue Angel - as Mr Sanderson said, "I wouldn't have liked to be that piano player!":

To conclude his cornucopia of uber-camp clips of Dietrich at her most alluring (an exotic dancer in in Kismet; "that lesbian kiss" from Morocco; the smouldering vamp in Shanghai Express and Desire) and most surprising (arriving in a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus; brawling and boozing in Destry Rides Again), Mr Sanderson provided us with a real treat - Marlene's Stockholm concert in 1960, when she was absolutely at the top of her cabaret success, in full.

And here it is. Enjoy!

Read Terry Sanderson's full article on Marlene in the Huffington Post.

Marlene Dietrich website


  1. What a fascinating post - I must admit I'm not very familiar with her work, but her persona has always been larger than life. I really must watch Blue Angel, which I have had on DVD for years but never gotten around to...

    1. Oh, we love Marlene as much for her eternally sultry (and photogenic) persona as for her film roles (some of which were, well, stilted to say the least) - but this was a truly absorbing tribute evening by a man whose knowledge of his subject is matchless... Jx


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