Inspired in part by the stories of Marlene Dietrich in Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast about the hidden and forgotten histories of 20th century Hollywood, in party by my local indie bookstore’s 2015 catalog, (and in part by Dietrich’s smoldering on-screen chemistry with Anna May Wong–no, I don’t mean Clive Brook–in 1932’s Shanghai Express) Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland marks the second biography I’ve read this year.
“I am, at heart, a gentleman.” -Marlene Dietrich
While the two women essentially begin on equal footing and from similar backgrounds, the directions of their lives are primarily influenced when they meet two powerful, authoritarian men: when Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg “discovered” Marlene Dietrich and cast her as Lola-Lola in the internationally acclaimed The Blue Angel; and when Leni Riefenstahl went to a political rally where she first laid eyes upon Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, Wieland focuses on the roles that these two men played in shaping the careers of both women rather than the decisions that both women–who remained independent of men for all of their lives–made about their own lives.
This may be due to the book’s clunky translation, but Wieland’s portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl is contradictory at times. She was a strong-willed woman who sought only to advance her own art (and thus her own fame), but she was a complicated woman. Wieland does not portray Riefenstahl with the same level of compassion or consideration that she does Marlene Dietrich. (Which begs the question, does Riefenstahl deserve equal compassion or consideration? A question that Wieland neither addresses directly or indirectly). Riefenstahl is definitely a product of her environment: while she was not a Nazi party member and did not commit war crimes, she certainly benefitted from the racism that National Socialists made the foundation of their philosophy. Her dedication to her art and the resulting images make things complicated when we consider the eye of the artist. (The actor depicting Riefenstahl’s subject, was often herself.)
Wieland gives plenty of page space to Riefenstahl’s work, as though through her work is the best way to understand her life. Not so with Dietrich. Though Wieland wants to depict Dietrich without judgement, more time is given to her personal affairs and family life than to her films and stage work. The goal appears to be to depict these two seemingly opposite women as having nearly identical qualities that led them to pursue their passions so fervently (albeit in opposing directions). But it takes a careful combing through the text to get at that purpose. Bad translations are unfortunate to read because it becomes nearly impossible to tell whether the work is poorly written or if the spirit of the work is just lost in translation.
Regardless, if you really want a blast in the face of old school Hollywood glamor, just Google image search “Marlene Dietrich.” (If you want a kick in the face, Google “Marlene Dietrich’s legs”).
Better yet, check out her films.