Marlene Dietrich, who died 30 years ago, on 6 May 1992, should be remembered not only for her importance as role model for emancipation, but also for her outspoken and active stand against her Nazi homeland.
Born in Berlin on 27 December 1901, she became one of the most famous actors of all time. Her breakthrough came with the 1929 film The Blue Angel. She left Germany for
Hollywood in 1930. When the Nazis were stripping other artists’ German citizenship, she renounced hers. Throughout the second world war, Dietrich actively engaged in the anti-fascist struggle. When she visited Germany after the war, she was deemed a traitor in West Germany, with relatively small numbers attending her funeral as late as 1992.
Dietrich’s father, Louis Otto Dietrich, an officer, died when Dietrich and her sister were very young. A few years later, Dietrich’s mother married Eduard von Losch, who was killed in World War I. As a child, Marlene loved music and intended to become a concert violinist, but a wrist injury in her teens made this impossible. After that, she turned her interest to the stage. She auditioned unsuccessfully at Berlin’s famous Max Reinhardt Drama School, but pursued acting and obtained a number of minor parts. All this changed when she was discovered by Josef von Sternberg for his new film project.
The Blue Angel
This film, directed by Sternberg and co-starring the famous Emil Jannings, was shot largely in 1929 and premiered in 1930. Germany, like the US and other countries, was badly affected by the Wall Street crash that year. To make matters worse, if not catastrophic, the loans Germany had been given to help boost its economy and it pay its war reparations over time – the US Dawes and Young Plans – suddenly dried up. Germany crashed badly – it had been in a ruinous state after WWI and had experienced a boom from the mid-1920s thanks to these loans and a false sense of security. It is important to bear this background in mind when thinking about The Blue Angel. As we now know, the severe economic crisis that ensued was a fertile ground for the rise of German fascism, which until then had not attracted much interest or support. This is an important backdrop to understanding the film.
The Blue Angel is a tragedy, with the pompous, but by no means malevolent teacher Emmanuel Rath as its tragic hero. Professor Rath corresponds entirely to Aristotle’s definition of tragic hero: “an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just” whose destruction is attributed, not to vice or depravity, but an error of judgment. The hero is a basically decent and inoffensive person. He must induce a sense of pity and fear within the audience, with pity arising when the character is utterly destroyed, while fear is aroused when the audience realise that such fate could befall them too. Shakespeare adds to this definition with his tragedies, that the character’s “frailty” is one provoked by the times s/he lives in, by an inability to cope with these times. In this sense, it is the new times that are instrumental in bringing down the tragic hero.
This is what happens in the case of professor Rath. He represents the older generation and is made a fool of by the younger generation, his students, whom he cannot control, only make empty threats to. Instead, the boys control him. Rath is, however, coldly destroyed by the young cabaret dancer Lola.
Cabaret had become very popular in the Weimar Republic and represented something very new, modern – and decadent. Film buffs might like to watch Act V of Symphony of a Great City, where a (falsely) prosperous Berlin is shown at its most modern in 1927, with electricity, cinemas, and cabarets. Cabaret is very much associated with the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic. The Blue Angel reveals this world to be a struggle for survival, where money, the show, takes precedence over human decency and dignity. A sad, silent clown wanders about backstage, foreshadowing Rath’s fate. The club where Lola performs is covered in nets and ropes, which frequently entangle Rath.
Rath is not a bad person. However, he is unfit for modern times. Pompous, ineffective and naïve, he is unable to see these times for what they are. Rath’s dignity, his inner core and identity, is destroyed, and this causes his descent into madness. First he loses all confidence and sense of himself as a teacher, reduced to selling ‘sexy’ cards advertising Lola. His marriage is unconsummated and his wife takes lovers. The ultimate blow comes when the company returns to his hometown and past colleagues witness the extent of his destruction, and, as the company director insists on a final humiliation, madness and death.
In this sense, Rath is a true tragic hero, destroyed by the new times that have dawned. His frailty is that he cannot understand the nature of the times, nor can he find a way to save himself. Ultimately, the new times destroy him. In this reading The Blue Angel foreshadows aspects of Nazi Germany, a ruthlessness that will not shrink from destroying people, and that was set to rise to power meteorically.
Both Sternberg and Dietrich left Germany for Hollywood in 1930. In the 1930s and 1940s, Dietrich starred in many famous films including Shanghai Express (1932), I Love a Soldier (1936), Manpower (1941), and The Lady is Willing (1942). She was among the first to embody the emancipated woman onscreen, and became a style icon with her characteristic trouser suits, hats and challenge to other ‘male’ domains. She had relationships with both men and women and is celebrated to this day by the LGBT community.
The Blue Angel was banned in Germany in 1933. Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, the company director and magician in the film, was murdered by the Nazis, after suffering terrible humiliation. The Inn Keeper, the Hungarian Jewish actor Charles Puffy, died while fleeing Hungary from the Nazis. Hans Albers, Lola’s young lover, on the other hand, stayed in Germany during the Nazi regime and became a star actor, although he never endorsed the fascists. Carl Balhaus, the boy in Rath’s class who feels for him and is bullied by the others, is the only actor in the film who lived in the GDR after the defeat of fascism and worked for DEFA, the state film production company.
When Nazi Germany was revoking the citizenships of many German artists, leaving them stateless, Dietrich refused any overtures by the Hitler regime and renounced her German citizenship, when WWII broke out, and took out US nationality. Dietrich, together with Billy Wilder among others, set up a fund to help persecuted people flee Germany. In 1937, she donated her entire income from Knight Without Armour to helping the refugees.
After Pearl Harbour was attacked on December 7, 1941, Americans were called on to support the US war effort by volunteering, joining the military, or selling war bonds. Dietrich helped sell war bonds. In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) approached Dietrich to assist in their propaganda efforts. She recorded American songs in German, including “Time On My Hands,” “Mean to Me,” and “Taking a Chance on Love”, but also German songs like “Lili Marlene”.
When the United Service Organizations (USO), founded in 1941, sought to entertain troops in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Dietrich was among those who volunteered in 1944 and 1945 and sang to the troops, often under dangerous conditions close to the frontline.
After the war, in 1948, she returned to acting, taking on the part – most reluctantly – of a Nazi singer in Billy Wilder’s comedy, “A Foreign Affair”, set on location in in the ruins of Berlin. In 1952, Dietrich decided to return to the theatre. She made exceptions for films such as Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. In 1962, she narrated the US documentary The Black Fox, which links the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler to Goethe’s story of Reynard the Fox. She also toured the world giving concerts, and included in her repertoire new anti-war songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. In 1975, Dietrich retired from public life.
When Dietrich died at the age of 90, her funeral service in Paris was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself with thousands more outside. Three medals were displayed at the foot of the coffin recognising Dietrich’s fight against Nazism.
Dietrich had requested to be buried in her birthplace Berlin, so her body was flown there on 16 May 1992. Her coffin was draped in an American flag and the cortege travelled through Berlin. However, there was little public acknowledgement of this event and comparatively few people attended the burial. On her last visit to (West) Berlin in 1960, she had been threatened and harassed, telling her to “go home”, and the police had feared disruptions of the funeral by neo-Nazi groups.
Berlin’s Mayor, the conservative Eberhard Diepgen, was jeered over the city’s failure to afford Dietrich a formal tribute, bowing to right-wing pressure. A wave of hate mail and insults such as “traitor” to a Berlin newspaper and the Senate administration had caused the Berlin Senate to cancel the planned transfer in a Bundeswehr jet and a memorial service in the Deutsches Theater in her honour.
Almost 8 months later, 1 December 1992, the Berlin Senate decided on an honorary grave, which was desecrated a year later, and it was not until her 100th birthday on 27 December 2001, that the city apologised for the hostility she had faced in Germany after the war. There was no mention of the controversies over naming a street after her, and nothing about the cancellation of the official commemoration. On 16 May 2002, Marlene Dietrich was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Berlin.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.