Sunday, 9 August 2009

Marlene (1984)

This Oscar-nominated documentary originally made for German television but released cinematically must be one of the strangest ever made with the theoretical cooperation of a living subject. Marlene Dietrich was 82 years old when she agreed to the project by actor-director Maximilian Schell, a co-star from 1961's "Judgment at Nuremburg". However she apparently stipulated that the interview and retrospective which was meant to be filmed at her Paris apartment could neither picture her nor her living quarters. So all the viewer has is a very stroppy and denigrating disembodied voice of the former legend.

Schell mixes the film's running time with wonderful clips from her films, her appearances for US trooops during World War II, the mixed reception she received from the German people after the war, and her long post-film concert career with Burt Bacharach, with his increasingly unsuccessful attempts to get the star to open up. Most of his questions are dismissed as rubbish or he is told that he can read about it in her book (or one of the other 53 that had been written about her). She lets down her guard somewhat when she talks about why she opposed Hitler and when she finds the occasional kind word about the many people with whom she worked over the years; in particular Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles come off well. Nearly everyone else from Emil Jannings through her husband through the other directors who made her famous receive very short shrift and only bland comments. The director's attempts to get her to watch videos of her movies and to reminisce are summarily dismissed as a waste of time by the very bolshy woman hiding in the next room. Only towards the end when she speaks about Berlin songs and a piece of poetry favoured by her mother, is there some crack to the voice and we assume the facade.

Perhaps she didn't wish her appearance to be shown as a way of preserving the glamorous image she nourished during her very long career and to prove just how much work goes into remaining an idol. Certainly her last film appearance in "Just a Gigolo" (1978) shows her heavily veiled and very carefully lit. However while the voice grew huskier over the years, her singing remained unique and rather wonderful. She died eight years after this documentary was filmed and presumably remained a recluse until the end, guarding the mystery that used to be Marlene Dietrich.
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