[Originally written for a University of Washington Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Sternberg and Dietrich”; reprinted in Movietone News No. 37, November 1974]
Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.
Watching Dietrich occupy cinematic space is one of the most intoxicating experiences that movies afford. Among my most vivid memories of The Blue Angel is Lola Lola’s amused, self- and other-appraising surprise as she watches Professor Rath defend her long-departed honor: sitting at her dressing table, high hat a-tilt, she inclines her head and torso along the left side of the frame and slowly draws her knee up into the right: her possession of the moment, her comprehension of its possibilities, is confirmed complete in one sensual adjustment of her position, itself as spontaneous as the act of thought, but defined in all its implication by the director’s framing and distance. Standing alongside the self-important café proprietor Lo Tinto in Morocco, Amy has only to knock out her collapsible top hat to comment upon his claim that his clientele is composed of the cream of society. Similarly, his prolix advice on how to size up likely sugar daddies among the audience is pronounced clearly superfluous by every syllable of body language emanating from the silent lady whose mind is already out there on that stage where she will simply … stand … and wait for a man she knows will be there to subdue the raucous house. If he were not there, to be sure, she could manage the trick herself (but, on some nonverbal level, Amy seems to know what she’s going to find that evening, and she and Legionnaire Brown go through their initial strides as though following a scenario they were singularly privileged to have read beforehand). This we can readily certify from the thorough raptness of the entire café as the tuxedoed Amy accepts a glass of champagne from the monsieur and claims a flower and a kiss from the young woman at his side: Sternberg’s mise-en-scène provides the delicate, completely dynamic visual context for Dietrich’s actions, and within that context Dietrich conducts her own forays into the emotional dangerousness of her personality.
It is worth stressing that Sternberg’s compositions do remain visual contexts as opposed to taking on the virtually lethal determinism of, say, the classic Fritz Lang frame. No one is architecturally imprisoned here. There is no displaced malevolence in that ornate pendant which hovers over the girl as Amy appraises her from the other side of the screen. Its visual weight and potential energy balance Dietrich’s visual height and kinetic (even kinesthetic) purpose, but it enhances our sense of a scene set, not of a fate sealed.
In the aptly symbolical dressing-room where Amy and her suitors rehearse the patterns of their interaction, the camera more often than not is asked to observe through a believably inadvertent yet arrestingly artful tangle of electric wires. Sternberg habitually—and obsessively—disposes some sort of lattice or netting or screen or vines or smoke between the camera and “the action,” with the real action of course consisting in the interrelation of all the elements: the players, their stances and gestures, their movement, that of the camera, the quality of the lighting, the décor … with the foreground detail visually keying the psychological density that invariably resides behind the often studiously (self-)composed faces, the rigorously uninflected readings. This is the function most constantly served by these dressing-room wires, though at one moment they do offer specific and eloquent comment on the graceful behavior of all three parties to the romantic triangle as La Bessière stands to Amy’s one side wishing his rival good fortune, and he and Brown exchange spatial territories with impeccable good manners, reaching across the centrally placed Amy to shake hands.
Beyond this, though, the wires arrogantly announce the director’s insistence on not only determining but also personalizing the nature of the spatial reality. They selfconsciously stress the operation of the theatrical convention of the fourth wall, a fourth wall that ought to be present, confining and stifling the performers in a squalid offstage cell, yet is absent (Sternberg never uses an angle that would show—and necessitate the temporary procurement of—that wall) because his own temperament demands an environment that will permit the romantic expansiveness that is his glory and his despair. Amy herself is never contained, confined or defined by this room where she enacts some of the most intense scenes of her life. La Bessière finds her there nurturing a weeks-long drunk precipitated by Brown’s apparent defection. She accepts his coming as though she knew it would happen. She requests a drink; he empties a glass of flat champagne and pours a fresh one; she flings it savagely over the farewell message Brown has written on the mirror, regains her self-possession (after, one feels, precisely the interval she permitted herself to lose it), hands La Bessière her good-luck dolls, and strolls out with only the clothes she has on. It is La Bessière, not she, who stands in the doorway looking back into the room as if wondering whether anything has been forgotten.
It is a scene typical of the film’s transactions, and of most transactions in Sternberg pictures. The “suicide passenger” and candidate for “the rear guard,” the legionnaire, and the cosmopolitan gentleman form one of the director’s most memorable configurations, and their story offers a virtual exemplum of Sternbergian decency and grace in the face of romantic desperation. The tenderness of The Blue Angel‘s Lola toward the emotionally retarded professor is frequently missed or at least lost sight of in the general seediness of the Blue Angel’s backrooms, the carnal frankness of the zaftig lady herself, the proliferation of irreverent (but liberating) gestures like blowing the face powder over Rath’s beard and vest. If the Dietrich of these early films is a femme fatale it is indeed because, like the lady in the song, she can’t help it. Amy Jolly is particularly guiltless of La Bessière’s fixation on her. She and he both seem aware of its intensity. He is a man of the world and knows what he is doing, and can afford to do it; she does without his support until circumstances of which he is perfectly well aware place her in need of his psychic aid (material aid seems all but irrelevant, neither to be courted nor ostentatiously rejected). Adolphe Menjou’s is one of the cardinal characterizations in Sternberg. His gracefulness goes far beyond the impeccability of his Continental elegance. He is a sybarite but he is not a fool. He wears his sophistication like the mantle of some King, or greatness, and his heart upon his well-tailored sleeve because he knows himself for what he is and Amy for what she is. He cannot be humiliated because his self-knowledge is apparent in his every action. If Amy cannot help but rush from her own engagement party upon hearing the music of the returning Legion troops, among whom perhaps is her lover, he needn’t keep explanations from his friends or take cover in either their frantic chitchat or another room. “You see, I love her. I’d do anything to make her happy.” And with that line he smiles a smile that is wry and not wry, self-aware rather than self-mocking, resigned and committed. It is a grimace translated and transfigured by savoir-faire, which is to say savoir-être. It is, if we may speak of such a thing, the expression worn by Sternberg’s films.
Just as La Bessière ought not to be mistaken for a cut-out sophisticated type, neither should chauvinists of either gender impose their negative vision of human relationships on the tortuous courtship of Amy Jolly and Private Brown. Their relentless mutual upstaging operates not as a sadistic game of sexual oneupmanship but rather as a cautious yet compelled approach to the altar of mutual trust. Brown wishes he had met Amy ten years before: if he doesn’t think much of women, “That’s their fault, not mine”; she never met a man good enough to take for a husband and has joined that other Foreign Legion of her sex, with “no uniforms, no flags, no medals when we are brave and no wound stripes when we are hurt.” Each tries on the other’s role(s), Amy playing the man with the girl in the café (tossing the girl’s flower to Brown just when he doesn’t expect to receive it, just when he has joined the audience in clapping for her performance); Brown then trying on her top hat and finally writing a self-defensive farewell on her mirror using her lipstick. When the director’s onscreen surrogate La Bessière points out to Amy “the rear guard” of women who follow the troops into the desert, she remarks: “Those women must be mad.” And then she turns her back to them and to the camera, her black hat stylishly maintaining the peculiar interest in her corner of the screen while concealing her face from us. But not from La Bessière: “I don’t know. You see, they love their men” (the line rings very like his own, later self-justification, already quoted); he seems to recognize her destiny while she may or may not. Later, when Amy tracks the evasive Brown to a native café, he too is using a girl as a sexual prop (in two senses of that word) while carving Amy’s name on a tabletop. The name he conceals from her, and his eyes as well, using the shadow of his hatbrim as she had previously turned her back.
Sternberg’s films with Dietrich cannot really date because his readings, his dialogue, his gestures are as conspicuously stylized as verse drama. In the direction of action—in the conventional sense of the phrase—he is almost ludicrously inept: Brown’s scuffle with two would?be assassins (“Ooooh! Aaaah! Unnnn!”), the jealous husband Caesar’s attempted murder of Brown under Arab machine-gun fire (does anyone watching the film have the vaguest notion where that machine gun is?). But in realizing the action of intimate human behavior—whether publicly transfigured in the café appearances of Amy/Marlene or held discreet in the desperately concealed winces and sighs of the private Amy, Brown, La Bessière—Josef von Sternberg stands supreme.
Direction: Josef von Sternberg. Screenplay: Jules Furthman, after the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. Cinematography: Lee Garmes (additional cinematography, uncredited, by Lucien Ballard. Art direction: Hans Dreier. Songs: “Give Me the Man” and “What Am I Bid for My Apples” by Karl Hajos (music) and Leo Robin (lyrics), “Quand amour meurt” by Millandy & Crémieux. A Paramount Picture.
The players: Marlene Dietrich (Amy Jolly), Gary Cooper (Legionnaire Tom Brown), Adolphe Menjou (La Bessière), Ulrich Haupt (Commandant César), Eve Southern (his wife), Paul Porcasi (Lo Tinto), Francis J. MacDonald (sergeant), Juliette Compton (Anna Dolores), Emile Chautard (guest at La Bessière’s dinner party).
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson