young marlene dietrich -- 1/2/15

Today's selection -- from Berlin by Rory Maclean. Germany's Marlene Dietrich was one of the most powerful sex symbols of the early twentieth century. She was a little-known actress until she was cast at the age of twenty-nine as Lola-Lola in the 1930 German film The Blue Angel. That role made her a superstar and she was then swept away by Hollywood. In America, she joined those who actively spoke out against Hitler, and in doing so became a pariah in her home country:

"The myth of [Marlene] Dietrich, the singular Berliner who became one of her century's great icons, began with an order. 'Tu was.' Do something, her mother told her. Make something of your life. Become someone.

"Dietrich all but imagined herself into being. A sensual and sensuous child christened Marie Magdalene, she renamed herself Marlene at the age of three. Her father, a lieutenant in the Imperial Police, vanished when she was six years old. Her mother's second husband, a grenadier officer, also disappeared, fatally wounded on the Russian Front in 1916. Dietrich grew up in a world without men. On summer evenings during the war she balanced on the open metal footbridge over the Anhalter main line near her Leberstraße home, waiting for the puffing troop trains. When they passed beneath, her skirts billowed in the moist steam and she imagined in it the smell of the arms, the leather belts, the warm sweat and breath. She imagined all the fathers and boys gazing up at her.

"At home she filled the vacuum by adopting roles which both comforted and challenged her mother. She called herself Paul, a habit which the older woman indulged, playing a part, learning to become whomever or whatever was needed. Marlene loved to perform, to stir, to be adored by wandering eyes. She learnt the lute, piano and violin, perfecting fingering and finesse, her discipline giving her the means to express herself.

22 year old Marlene Dietrich

"At eighteen she left Berlin for the Musikhochschule [music high school] in Weimar, 280 kilometres to the south-west, humbling classmates with her diligence, scandalising them too as she sailed off to private lessons in flimsy chiffon. The power of her budding sexuality now thrilled her, as it did the teacher who became her first lover. She was shaken by the desire that she awoke in him. All that existed was his body, his smell, his hard embrace. His friend, a violin-maker thirty years her senior, became her second conquest. Younger men -- including painters and designers from the newly established Bauhaus -- waited for her outside Frau Stein's boarding house. When their gaze fell on her, her breath shortened, excitement gripped her chest, and she became their mistress, their whore, their angel.

"But by 1921 her mother's eroded pension no longer covered the school fees. It wouldn't even buy a loaf of bread. Dietrich was forced to return to Berlin and into work as an UFA concert mistress. In the dimly lit orchestra pit she played the violin, distracting the other members of the all-male ensemble with her legs. She studied the tempo and tone of the silent films projected above her head, accompanying her screen idol Henny Porten's actions over and over again, learning the hidden grammar of performance and movie-making -- until she was fired for ruining the men's concentration.

"She laid the violin aside, took off her head-hugging cloche hat and stepped onto the stage. At the Theater des Westens and with Guido Thielscher's high-kicking Girl-Kabarett, she felt the erotic frisson which her becoming stirred in her audience."


Rory MacLean


Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2014 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson


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