Golden Age on the Printed Page: Marlene
Marlene Dietrich is one of the legendary actresses of our time, there’s no doubt about that. I was interested to read her autobiography considering the time period in which she made her films, themselves ripe with film history, as well as hearing about her life. Dietrich was a staunch supporter of the US during WWII, and almost went as far as renouncing her German citizenship. Sadly, Marlene fails to live up to all the hype, mostly due to its star. Dietrich has a rather flippant attitude to her time in Hollywood which comes across in the book. She breezes past her filmmaking career, and goes on lengthy philosophical diatribes that come off as angry. It feels like she harbors resentment that’s never explained. In the end, it’s a quick 255 pages, but it’ll be hard to get through for all the time Dietrich goes on about nothing much.
Dietrich is straight-forward and blunt in telling her life’s story. It might be stereotypical to call it a “German thing,” but Dietrich makes no apologies for her life, and the lessons she’s learned. She openly mentions she found stardom detestable and will be presenting the fact only. This does make the reading feel cold and distanced. I never expect a star to pen a tell-all, but only a handful of people are even acknowledge. It’s obvious she reveres director Joseph von Sternberg as she devotes a significant portion of the book to what he taught her, and what he exaggerated. For instance, she says von Sternberg wished to “Pygmalion-ize her.” There are a few other people who are mentioned, but she devotes more time to them then her own family. The lengthiest section about her husband Rudi Seiber is about a page discussing her wedding, and her daughter is barely mentioned aside from her name. At times you start to feel if she has any love for them, or is just not mentioning them out of protection, but there’s no reason not to state that.
The actress is incredibly knowledgeable about the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking as she discusses the best way to light actresses, camera angles, etc. In a way, it’s as if Dietrich would have been happier as a director instead of an actress. There’s also a great section about the war that feels close to Dietrich’s heart. She discusses a teacher in her elementary school days who disappeared during the start of WWII. After that, Dietrich would fail to identify with the German cause, and in one story she details going up to French soldiers during Bastille Day to give them flowers (she had to lie to her friends/family about why she did it). The hypocrisy and rancor that Dietrich holds for WWII is still raw as evidenced by her writing. For all of Dietrich’s strength, and being raised by strong women, it’s disconcerting to read statements from her like “Logic is not a feminine trait,” and how she had to “think like a man and not a woman” (37). I’ve read autobiographies from actors who wrote before political correctness was a thing, but taking into account Dietrich’s life it’s sad to read this.
I never felt bonded to Dietrich at all. The lengthy philosophical discourses she goes on makes paragraphs feel like they go on forever. At certain points I didn’t even understand what the rant was in reference to. When the book doesn’t feel like a rant, it feels like a series of events with little thread connecting them other than Dietrich’s presence. I think a biography, written by someone else, might have been a better way to convey a well-rounded discussion of who Dietrich was. Marlene is a book that reads like a dry treatise about European actors being better than Americans, and the horrors of stardom (which little horror). The book is brisk, again only 200 or so pages, but if you’re not connected to her instantly it’s a tough read.
Interested in purchasing today’s book? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I think autobiographies serve a different role than that of the biography. They often tell us more about the style and character of their author than about any sort of accurate chronology of their life experiences. You get to see what they think the public should know about them and their business, not what strict historiographical scholarship demands. Miss Hepburn’s autobiography is really just a sequence of anecdotes from her life. The richest part is about her upbringing, not about her career. Autobiographies have always been much more valuable when suplemented with a solid biography. This is a great review; I think I would like to read this book, despite its shortcomings!
Agreed, Margaret, and an even better example of Marlene’s style and character is her book ABC. Marlene’s autobiography underwent several changes over decades due to publisher demands and translation, and the English-language version available to us presents a diluted Dietrich.