Dec 272016


Today is the birthday (1901) of Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich, a German actress and singer who held both German and US citizenship. Throughout her unusually long career, which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s, she maintained popularity by continually reinventing herself. She was one of my teenage loves in the 1960s which made me something of an oddity among my friends who thought of her music as well past its prime by that time. I think of her singing of the 1930s and ‘40s as enduring classics although the love affair is long past. The more I know about her life, the less inclined I am to be enamored, but I still admire her war efforts and her screen presence. I saw her once in performance in  1972 when I was still in love, but she was rather a faded bloom by that time. You can read her autobiography as well as the biography by her daughter if you want all the details. I’ll just hit some key spots for me.

Dietrich was born on Leberstraße 65 in the neighborhood of Rote Insel in Schöneberg, now a district of Berlin. Dietrich’s mother was from an affluent Berlin family who owned a jewelry and clock making firm. Her father was a police lieutenant who died in 1907. His best friend, Eduard von Losch, an aristocratic first lieutenant in the Grenadiers, married Wilhelmina in 1916, but he died soon afterwards from injuries sustained during the First World War. Von Losch never officially adopted the Dietrich girls, so Dietrich’s surname was never von Losch, as has sometimes been claimed.

Dietrich studied the violin and became interested in theater and poetry as a teenager. Her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were dashed by a wrist injury, but by 1922 she had her first job, playing violin in a pit orchestra that accompanied silent films at a cinema in Berlin. She was fired after only four weeks.


Her earliest professional stage appearances were as a chorus girl on tour with Guido Thielscher’s Girl-Kabarett vaudeville-style entertainments, and in Rudolf Nelson revues in Berlin. In 1922, Dietrich auditioned unsuccessfully for theatrical director and impresario Max Reinhardt’s drama academy, but he hired her as a chorus girl and to play small roles in dramas. She made her film debut playing a bit part in the film The Little Napoleon (1923).

She met her future husband, Rudolf Sieber, on the set of Tragödie der Liebe in 1923. They were married in a civil ceremony in Berlin on 17 May 1923 and her only child, daughter Maria Elisabeth Sieber, was born on 13 December 1924. They never divorced but separated after 5 years, yet appeared to remain close until his death. After separating (and even before) Dietrich had a string of affairs with both men and women, many of them simultaneously, the list reading like a Who’s Who of the celebrity world. She also developed into an alcoholic. All of this was carefully shielded from the public until after her death when her daughter published a frank biography. Mostly I find this sad and disappointing, suggesting that deep happiness eluded her and that her screen persona of the superficial femme fatale is more than a little accurate.

Dietrich continued to work on stage and in film both in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. By the late 1920s, she was also playing sizable parts on screen, including roles in Café Elektric (1927), Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (1928), and Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929). Also in 1929 she landed the breakthrough role of Lola-Lola, a sexy cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a respectable schoolmaster (played by Emil Jannings), in UFA-Paramount co-production The Blue Angel (1930). Josef von Sternberg directed the film and thereafter took credit for having “discovered” Dietrich.

In 1930, on the strength of The Blue Angel‘s international success, and with encouragement and promotion from Josef von Sternberg, who was already established in Hollywood, Dietrich moved to the United States under contract to Paramount Pictures. The studio sought to market Dietrich as a German answer to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Swedish sensation, Greta Garbo.

Dietrich starred in six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount between 1930 and 1935. Sternberg worked effectively with Dietrich to create the image of a glamorous and mysterious femme fatale. In Morocco (1930), Deitrich was again cast as a cabaret singer. The film is best remembered for the sequence in which she performs a song dressed in a man’s top, hat, white tie, and tails, and kisses another woman – both acts provocative for the era. The film earned Dietrich her only Academy Award nomination.

Morocco was followed by Dishonored (1931), a major success with Dietrich cast as a Mata Hari-like spy. Shanghai Express (1932), which was called by the critics as “Grand Hotel on wheels”, was Sternberg and Dietrich’s biggest box office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1932. Dietrich and Sternberg again collaborated on the romance Blonde Venus (1932). Dietrich worked without Sternberg for the first time in three years in the romantic drama Song of Songs (1933), playing a naive German peasant, under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian. Dietrich and Sternberg’s last two films, The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935)- the most stylized of their collaborations- were their lowest-grossing films. Dietrich later remarked that she was at her most beautiful in The Devil Is a Woman.


Sternberg is noted for his exceptional skill in lighting and photographing Dietrich to optimum effect. He had a signature use of light and shadow, including the impact of light passed through a veil or slatted blinds (as for example in Shanghai Express). This combined with the scrupulous attention to set design and costumes makes the films they made together among the most visually stylish in cinema history. Paramount fired Sternberg, so the two never worked together again.The collaboration of one actress and director creating seven films is still unmatched in cinema history.

Extravagant offers lured Dietrich away from Paramount to make her first color film The Garden of Allah (1936) for independent producer David O. Selznick, receiving $200,000, and to Britain for Alexander Korda’s production, Knight Without Armour (1937), at a salary of $450,000, which made her one of the best paid film stars. While both films did respectable box office, her vehicles were costly to produce and her public popularity had declined. By this time, Dietrich placed 126th in box office rankings, and US film exhibitors proclaimed her “box office poison” in May 1938, a distinction she shared with Greta Garbo.

While she was in London, officials of the Nazi Party approached Dietrich and offered her lucrative contracts, should she agree to return to Germany as a foremost film star in the Third Reich. She refused their offers and applied for US citizenship in 1937. She returned to Paramount to make Angel (1937), a romantic comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch; the film was poorly received, leading Paramount to buy out the remainder of Dietrich’s contract.

Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. In interviews, Dietrich stated that she had been approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany but had turned them down flat. In the late 1930s, Dietrich created a fund with Billy Wilder and several other Germans to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany. In 1937, her entire salary for Knight Without Armor ($450,000) was put into escrow to help the refugees. In 1939 when she became a US citizen she renounced her German citizenship. In December 1941,  when the U.S. entered World War II, Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to help sell war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star.


During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK and France, then went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand”—”out of decency”. Wilder later remarked that she was at the front lines more than Eisenhower. Her revue, with Danny Thomas as her opening act, included songs from her films, performances on her musical saw (a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in Berlin in the 1920s) and a pretend “mindreading” act. Dietrich would inform the audience that she could read minds and ask them to concentrate on whatever came into their minds. Then she would walk over to a soldier and earnestly tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!” US church papers reportedly published stories complaining about this part of Dietrich’s act.


In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) initiated the Musak project, musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Dietrich, the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use, recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including “Lili Marleen”, a favorite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Major General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, wrote to Dietrich, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us.”

Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in November 1947. She said this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government for her wartime work.

After the war Dietrich never fully regained her former screen success, but she continued performing in motion pictures, including appearances for such distinguished directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder in films that included A Foreign Affair (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Rancho Notorious (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958), and my personal favorite, No Highway in the Sky (1951). The full movie is here:

For Dietrich it has to be a dish I once loved, but no more, with both German and US accents. That’s a tough order. The hamburger fits the bill but I’ve covered that territory. Ditto, the frankfurter (hot dog), although to tell the truth I still eat them as a quick snack. On that same line there is bratwurst which used to appeal to me but doesn’t any more. Even so I can give you a decent recipe for Wisconsin beer brats.


Bratwurst was popularized in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin in the 1920s. In general, each local butcher shop would take orders and hand make bratwurst fresh to be picked up on a particular day. The fat content of the sausages was substantial, making daily pick up necessary to avoid spoilage. The originals no doubt emulated their German forebears which are varied and complex. Recipes for the German sausage vary by region and even locality; some sources list over 40 different varieties of German bratwurst, many of the best known originating in Franconia and adjacent areas. How the sausages are served is also locally different, but most commonly they are regarded as a snack served with or in a white bread roll made from wheat flour and eaten with mustard. As a pub dish, it is often accompanied by sauerkraut or potato salad and sometimes served with dark, crusty country bread made predominantly from rye flour, less commonly with a Brezel (pretzel). It is a very popular form of fast food in German-speaking countries, often cooked and sold by street vendors from small stands.


The US bratwurst is a pallid cousin to the German original, but can serve as a good alternative to hot dogs at a cook out. Before grilling immerse the brats in a pilsner-style beer with some chopped onions and simmer gently for about an hour (or more). Drain the brats and let them cool (and dry off). Then grill them over charcoal so that they are nicely seared on the outside. I eat them in bread with sauerkraut and mustard, but you can follow German tradition if you like.