As 1930 began, German actress Marlene Dietrich was on the cusp of becoming an international screen icon. In 1929, director Josef von Sternberg had seen her perform in a stage musical and immediately wanted to cast her as the cabaret singer Lola Lola in his forthcoming sound film, Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). It didn’t matter that another actress was already cast to play Lola Lola; von Sternberg saw that his will was done, and a long and storied partnership began.
The director and star finished shooting the film ended at the end of January, and when executives at Paramount saw it they quickly signed Dietrich to a contract and she moved to Hollywood where she made six films with von Sternberg: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Bonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). The Criterion Collection recently released a landmark boxset, aptly named Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, containing all six of these features.
This is certainly going to be one of my favorite releases of the year. These six films are filled with fun and extravagance. They take place in Morocco, Austria, China, Germany, Russia, and Spain. Meant first and foremost to entertain, these are the works of a master director who knows how to make the films live on through the magnetism of their star. There’s a reason that all of the individual covers feature Dietrich’s confident, powerful face.
von Sternberg knew the treasure he’d found and he knew how to use his skills to bring Dietrich’s power to the silver screen. I’ll be making my way through the films this month, and I would love some company as I look at the beginnings of a legend.
Interestingly, there was another budding film legend who was lightly acquainted with Dietrich before Dietrich left Germany in 1930. This legend wanted the role of Lola Lola in The Blu Angel, but the pasts and futures and legacies of these two women are very different. This other woman was Leni Riefenstahl, who hadn’t yet given up acting to start directing her own pictures.
Riefenstahl and Dietrich were not friends, but they did know each other, and there are a few photographs of them together at various events. They even lived close to each other for a short time. Riefenstahl didn’t get the role of Lola Lola, and she didn’t leave Germany in the 1930s. Instead, she started directing films, important and innovative ones where she used her vision to create groundbreaking documentaries as propaganda for Hitler’s regime. The two most notable films she made are The Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).
The lives of these two German film legends is compared and contrasted in Karin Wieland’s Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives. This is an excellent dual biography that gets is strength from showing us, well, these two monumental lives, the work they did during the war (I mentioned Riefenstahl’s briefly, but for her part Dietrich fought the war on the homefront, doing all she could to encourage the troops fighting her native land). Might I recommend this as a supplement to Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood?