In This Article Marlene Dietrich

  • Introduction
  • Hollywood after World War II
  • Star Persona and Icon
  • Cross-Dresser and Androgynous Symbol
  • Career as Chanteuse
  • Dietrich/Berlin/Germany
  • Dietrich’s Afterlife
  • Remembering Marlene

Cinema and Media Studies Marlene Dietrich
by
Barbara Kosta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0133

Introduction

Marlene Dietrich (b. 1901–d. 1992) is known as an icon of glamour whose image continues to fascinate contemporary audiences. Best known for her nonchalant, commanding sex appeal in The Blue Angel and her 1930s Paramount films with Austrian-born director Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed legends. Her career nearly spanned the 20th-century and underwent numerous transformations. Known as a trendsetter who pushed the boundaries of conventional gender performances, and as a femme fatale of the silver screen, her androgyny was provocative, as was her exotic “foreignness” in her Hollywood films. She was one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars. Dietrich’s performances in film and on stage have intrigued scholars. Especially since the women’s movement, scholars have mined Dietrich’s image and cinematic presence using a plethora of theoretical approaches to explore her star persona, from psychoanalysis to cultural studies, and from feminist film theory to queer theory and reception theory. By the same token, her life as an international star has given rise to many biographies that bring to light a woman who very consciously managed her career and fastidiously cultivated her image. Dietrich enjoyed many friendships and love affairs, was a mother and devoted Berliner, and loved to cook and entertain. As the volumes of books and articles, and the many references to Dietrich’s performances suggest, her allure remains larger than her life. She has been a vehicle for directors, advertisers, photographers, and publicists, and an inspiration for biographers, curators, memoirists, impersonators, and playwrights, who continue to evoke her image and capitalize on her mystique as a cultural icon. Even the city of Berlin after Germany’s unification in 1990 called upon its star to represent its libertine, democratic, antifascist past and its European future. Indeed, Dietrich surpasses her many film roles. As a star, she exists as a composite of her films, of her public persona and private life, and of her reception. As an icon of popular culture, she remains a powerful signifier in an ever larger arena of cultural discourses that include notions of performativity, gender, aging, collecting, and the reception and production of images, to name a few of the topics in the articles listed below. Marlene Dietrich’s life and work have captivated biographers and scholars of film and theater studies, German studies, and cultural and gender studies.

Biographies

Born Maria Magdalena Dietrich on December 27, 1901 in Berlin (Schöneberg). Dietrich combined her first and middle name to become Marlene. A natural performer, she could be seen on cabaret and theater stages throughout Berlin as well as in minor film roles. Dietrich’s 1930 performance as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel launched her Hollywood career, even though she had previously starred in two other Weimar films, Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (1929) and Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt (1929). Dietrich left for Hollywood, and under the direction of Josef von Sternberg’s masterful lighting and lavish mise-en-scène, she emerged as Paramount’s luminous star in all six films that he directed: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). After parting ways with von Sternberg, Dietrich made a number of Hollywood films but was deemed box office poison until her come back as Frenchy in George Marshall’s 1939 Destry Rides Again. Among her most significant postwar performances are Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). The following is a list of biographies and collections of photographic and ephemera that have been assembled to showcase Dietrich’s public and private persona.

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