Stage Fright

11.21.10

Maximilian Schell, Marlene, 1984, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production stills.


“FROM THE FLAT SCREEN she stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable,” Kenneth Tynan wrote of Marlene Dietrich in 1967. In Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary on the actress, she is unfilmable.

Schell, who had costarred with Dietrich in Judgment in Nuremberg (1961), spent years trying to persuade her to take part in a film about her life; she finally agreed in 1982, on the condition that neither she nor her apartment in Paris, where she had been living as a near-recluse since 1979 and where Schell interviewed her, be photographed. Contracted for “forty hours of my blah-blah-blah,” Dietrich, eighty-one at the time, gives the tetchiest performance—and one of the most quotable—in cinema history. Most of Schell’s earnest inquiries, delivered in English and German, are met with some variation of the following: “Kitsch!” “Rubbish!” “It’s in my book,” “I’m not interested in the past,” “You don’t have to show me anything—I know it all,” “I don’t know what you’re after,” or “You should go back to Mama Schell and learn some manners.” (The director makes sure to include his subject’s kinder moments as well: Dietrich, asking what time it is, tells the crew, “I made you all little snacks.”)

Schell supplements the audio of the icon’s indignant outbursts with expertly curated clips, including scenes from her films with von Sternberg (of whom she says, “He was deliberately making life difficult for me”), concert performances (“Who is talking? Shut up,” she demands at one gig), and TV interviews (“No, I never fight with anyone,” Dietrich casually notes during one chat). But throughout her bilious explosions at Schell, the actress offers occasional self-abnegating assessments: “I wasn’t erotic. I was snotty,” recalls Dietrich, who so memorably ogled and kissed another woman on the mouth in Morocco (1930). Yet her refusal to be filmed, her rage, and her disparagement all contribute to the legend-making that began with her breakthrough performance in The Blue Angel (1930). Perverse genius that she was, Dietrich knew that adamantly hiding in the shadows in Schell’s film would make viewers crave images of her from the past that much more. Marlene is an excellent companion to the actress’s indispensable volume of alphabetical aphorisms and observations, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1962). Under the listing “Dietrich,” she writes, “In the German language: the name for a key that opens all locks. Not a magic key. A very real object, necessitating great skills in the making.”

Melissa Anderson

Marlene screens November 23 at the IFC Center in New York as part of the “Stranger Than Fiction” series. For more details, click here.