|Was this the image of Madge & Chirac that shocked Dietrich?
(from Madonna Superstar Queen Photogallery)
Book-ended by commentary from the presenter Laurence Piquet and the film critic Henri Chapier that references the well-known tropes of Dietrich-as-Galatea and Dietrich-as-myth-and-image, this documentary offers an assortment of testaments from friends, family, and others that invite us to the inner sanctum of our last goddess, not panegyrizing her but rather humanizing her during her Ragnarok. For those less fond of my pretentious rhapsodizing , let me put it to you this way: you’ll get to see and hear Dietrich being a hot mess before she died, which you may find tasteless or morbidly fascinating—or both!
In this documentary, Werner Sudendorf makes an all-too-brief appearance, and we instead mire with guilty pleasure in Louis Bozon and a quirky neighbor’s commentary. Maria Riva and Peter Riva provide the more tempered insight that we’ve already heard in their past interviews, such as that Dietrich left the public eye so not to spoil its image of her, that Dietrich slept on the edge of her bed, that Maria wanted Dietrich to live with her in Switzerland, that Dietrich knew exactly how to set up lighting, that Dietrich acted like a teenybopper when she was in love, that Dietrich devoured newspapers, that Ronald Reagan called Dietrich before he left office, that Dietrich was a soldier in her own right during World War II, etc. Oddly, Maria made her first appearance speaking in French, and Peter made a statement in French that proved his ability to speak it just as competently. Thus, I don’t understand why they opted for English in their interviews. The monotonous dubbing made Maria and Peter more detached, which was a shame because both are obviously great storytellers. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even listen much to the dubbing over Peter’s voice because he was quite animated and projected his voice loudly enough for me to hear him in his own English words. After reading the end credits, I suspect that Maria and Peter filmed their interviews in Los Angeles with an American producer.
Despite their frequent presence, Maria and Peter take a backseat to Bozon, the author of Marlene: La femme de ma vie. The emphasis of this documentary, if you couldn’t tell from its title, is on Dietrich’s final years in Paris at 12 avenue Montaigne, with a distinctive French perspective. I’m interested to know about this footage that resembled Dietrich’s apartment. I wonder whether it is a recreation, in the same vein as Maximilian Schell’s documentary, or indeed her Paris apartment. I have only seen photos of her flat, from which I can enumerate the uncanny similarities seen in the documentary—including the floral couch, the arrangement of framed images, and even the red-lettered rotary phone. Undoubtedly, that withered hand dialing the phone was some reenactment, but were these all Dietrich’s possessions?
Before I delve into Bozon’s trove, I’d like to acknowledge some of the goodies that Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin (MDCB) and others contributed. There’s the home footage of a constantly laughing Dietrich with family, friends, and lovers in Austria, Venice, and Cap d’Antibes. Also, we are privy to many concert clips, the Swedish interview that gets sliced and diced throughout the documentary, and Dietrich’s funeral footage. Of course, I can’t forget the special focus on French actor Jean Gabin, whom we see playing cowboys with Dietrich in a home video shot in—correct me if I’m wrong—La Quinta? For those of you who have already seen Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, Schell’s documentary, or most of what's on YouTube, these clips are nothing new. What may be a treat for some of you is the photo that Dietrich's grandson Paul had taken of her, which is the last photo of Dietrich I have ever seen (excluding that grisly photo of her corpse on her sofa, covered by the tricolor). Times have changed when this once private photo can appear in an authorized documentary on national television!
Now for the meat of this pot-au- feu, Bozon! Unlike some of you, I don’t believe that one can humiliate the dead because, well, they’re dead. Those who do subscribe to such a notion may beg to differ, considering Bozon’s show-and-tell of his recorded phone messages and conversations and also his letters and postcards an embarrassment to Dietrich. My sense of humor’s just a little too dark for me to take offense. Even Dietrich saw the silliness in some of her messages, like when she called to ask what her own phone number was. Other funny recordings reflect her disgust about the following: that Mikhail Baryshnikov would perform at the “miserable” Moulin Rouge, that some nutjob in California (the doctor?) wanted to sleep with her on Christmas day (remarkably, she says “l’autre fou,” suggesting that there were others like this George who called her!), or that then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac hugged that panty-tossing, vulgar Madonna (I can only speculate what she would've said about Mylène Farmer!). Some recordings and all the notes are simply sad, revealing Dietrich's desperate efforts to reach Bozon that bordered on stalking and her incessant begging for forgiveness. Dietrich made her life a solitary one by keeping herself in bed for the remainder of her life, but she was too lonely to bear the silence that her friend Bozon imposed on her.
As Maria said, it was a tragedy, which may be Dietrich’s last (unintentional) act of kindness to her fans if we take it in an Aristotelian sense. How Prussian of Dietrich that, by ending her life in a pitiful way brought on by her own mishaps, she gave us a cathartic story to help us realize that our lives aren’t so bad in comparison and that we ought to control our emotions