Marlene: Maximillian Schells’ Revelatory Documentary with Dietrich’s Voice but No Face

In “Marlene,” Maximillian Schell’s riveting if also peculiar documentary about the old star, Dietrich dismisses just about every subject as “kitsch” or “trash,” including much of her own achievements in film. She also denies she is sentimental about anything. Can she be trusted at old age

At 80, Dietrich’s mind and mettle seem undiminished by time. Her temperament, which could be described as a combo of German sophisticated cynicism with glitzy American showbiz professionalism, nearly defeats Schell’s goal to present a more detached chronicle of the proud movie star, who’s still better-known for her long concert career than Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

For his part, Schell (brother of actress Maria Schell and Oscar winner for “Judgment at Nuremberg”) presents himself as a gentle Swiss director, but is actually shrewd and determined, pushing the diva to the limit, considering that his camera were not allowed to photograph her at all.

In a press conference in New York (“Marlene premiered at the N.Y. Film Festival), Schell said he had entered Dietrich’s Paris apartment a few years ago with the understanding that he would not be able to film herhe was only allowed to tape their conversations.

However, in the course of recording some of her interviews, he learned how to challenge, provoke, and contradict his subject, and on occasion, he not only provokes and irritates her, but also turns her into a liar, by presenting contradictory evidence to her statements, about family, for example, or biological age, or relationships with men. She can be a dreadful liar, denying the existence of an older sister that Schell found

This intelligent woman is taken by the myth of her own hardness, and he exposes the degree of her self-deception. The interviews are accompanied with newsreel footage, photo albums and film clips, set against Dietrich’s apartment that he uses as a theatrical stage.

Schell also disclosed that there were times in which he came up against the wall of finding reliable, or any, information out about Dietrich’s life and career. At first, Dietrich only agreed to a limited voice-over commentary, based on her trust that Schell would stick to a straightforward chronicle of her public careers.

Originally, Schell wished to shoot the star as she watched her clips and dissected her own screen image, all for the purpose of revealing the presumably more human and vulnerable woman behind the mask. Schell thought since he was a friend, he would be in good position to charm and deceive her. But Dietrich denied him the pleasure of doing that. As a result, he decided to use his frustrations and obstacles as a director and integrate them into the body of his film.

End result is a psychodrama of funny and pathetic proportions, sort of a battle of wills between two strong and self-absorbed artists-show people. As David Edelstien has noted, “Marlene” the docu has the urgency of a failed seduction a man who pursues a beautiful image and asks, Why can’t I charm you into submission, while the object clings defensively to her cynical, world-weary persona.

Watching these two stars wrestle over self and public perception, we get a rare glimpse behind the bars of exhibitionism. Edelstein’s point is well-taken. Dietrich stood up to Schell and he walked out on her a number of times during the interviews. And while angrily ranting that no man had ever walked out on her, she succumbs to more interviews, because admittedly she needs the money. Most of the interviews took place in the fall-winter of 1982. Dietrich had signed a contract, agreeing to 40 hours of conversations.

In the course of the interviews, Dietrich makes some outrageous statements. Hence, she dismisses the whole notion of feminism on the grounds that women’s brains are smaller, and she tends to generalize too much, as when she says that the Nazis were people who always longed to take orders.

Even more interesting is her insistent claim that she doesn’t look at her own films. However, when she finally consents to comment on one, she immediately notices that a couple of shots are missing.

There’s pathos too. Dietrich would like to be honored and remembered not as the virtual recluse she had become, but the legendary beauty she has been almost from the start of her career, particularly in the seven picture she made with Joseph von Sternberg (including “The Blue Angel”), who was her most frequent and influential directorand also lover.

Dietrich may not be the best judge of her own work. She downgrades her Joseph von Sternberg films despite Schell’s perceptive protestations, and then admires her own mechanical performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg” just because it was about an honorable issue she believed in.

Other highlights of the vastly entertaining docu include Dietrich’s observation that sex never meant much to Ernest Hemingway, one of her closest friends and admirers. Or her (genuine) sobs at the end of the film, after Schell recites a poem that she first tries to dismiss, before confessing that her mother loved it.

She can be gracious, too. After her films with Sternberg became box-office poison, Joe Pasternak and George Marshall rescued her from commercial disaster with the comedic Western “Destiny Rides Again” (1939), opposite Jimmy Stewart, and the star is gracious about her director, Marshall.

Andrew Sarris has observed that, “the line between the public Dietrich and the private one had been blurred almost from the beginning. What you saw was pretty much what there was, and what you hear and see in Schell’s fascinating study is Dietrich in all her sweet-sour generous-vindictive, smart-dumb complexity gave Sternberg full credit for her rise.”

As noted, the limitations imposed on Schell by his subject forced him to adopt a form that’s as important to the film as its content. Ultimately, “Marlene” is an original and intriguing blend of appreciation and exasperation in dealing with an old legend that’s still alive and kicking.

The docu that emerges out of this quarrelsome love-hate collaboration is ultimately far more lively and “real,” than any ordinary or more factual portrait would have been. “Marlene” is at once a portrait of a strong-willed woman, still trying to manage her career right up to the bitter end, and a dissection of the legacy of movie stardom, or how screen images are created and preserved.