“I’ve been photographed enough, thank you,” snaps the 81-year-old Marlene Dietrich to director Maximilian Schell at the outset of Marlene, a frequently witty X-ray that cannily exploits a seeming weakness. Collaborating with her former Judgment at Nuremberg co-star on a biographical documentary, the legendary siren refused to appear on camera while being interviewed, or to permit Schell to film the décor and memorabilia in her Paris apartment. Instead, Marlene‘s crew is seen recreating her flat as the movie’s main set and aiding their director in piecing together Dietrich’s history as he gazes fixedly at celluloid strips of her image—at one point, amusingly anticipating Godard in King Lear, burying his head in a tangle of film.
The bilingual parrying between the withholding diva and her frustrated chronicler often seems like Sunset Boulevard re-imagined as a radio play, with sex removed from the equation but marlenus interruptus aplenty. Dietrich responds to questions with an unhelpful “It’s all in my book” or rails against melodramatic scenes in her Hollywood vehicles, spitting “Kitsch und dreck!” (Unlike Norma Desmond, Marlene testily denies watching her own work, but when Schell finally coerces her into watching The Scarlet Empress on video, she insists he has a flawed tape when the editing doesn’t match her memories.)
With her status as an A-list movie queen a quarter-century gone and the recycling of her iconography by Madonna yet to come, the absence of the “present” Dietrich’s image from the screen comes to seem like a metaphor for her status as a mistily elusive relic. (Clips of her 1960s concert-hall tours show a white-minked, smiling but frosty icon determinedly holding onto the spotlight as she belts out “Lili Marleen” and “Falling In Love Again” under the musical direction of Burt Bacharach.) As Schell cajoles and fights with her on the soundtrack, he combats her evasions and decrees with images: A childhood photo of Dietrich with her sister negates the assertion that she was an only child, and a sequence of her arrival in America cut precisely to her dictated specifications hilariously cedes the filmmaker’s role to the subject.
While there are side servings of dish on Fritz Lang (“a terror”), feminism (“penis envy”), and method acting (improvisation is “for amateurs”) and surprisingly scant words on the star’s Pygmalion, Josef von Sternberg, the key to Schell’s film is connecting the pain-in-the-ass octogenarian who declares herself “very practical” with the one who weeps at a sentimental poem, favored by her mother, about love surviving death. Loved and reviled in Germany after her emigration was followed by highly visible touring of the Allied front in WWII, Dietrich was in some sense homeless everywhere but Hollywood when her sex-goddess prime concluded. Long before ending with a sad clip of the elderly star crooning “Just a Gigolo” in a David Bowie film, Schell finds one answer to the enigma of Marlene when he asks her if love and sex can coexist. “Yes,” sighs a woman who denied the erotic charge in her performances, “if they insist on it.”