27 May 2012

Marlene Dietrich in the Twilight Zone

Was this the image of Madge & Chirac that shocked Dietrich?
(from Madonna Superstar Queen Photogallery)
Finally, I’ve watched the recent France 5 documentary, Un soir avec Marlene Dietrich: Le crépuscule d’un ange. Despite my frustration that such programs never air in the United States, I must admit that many folks can’t conveniently tweet about them, Pinterest them, or “like” them; therefore, they can’t engage in any discourse about them.

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


  1. It was very interesting to read your comments on this documentary, Joseph.
    I'm sure, you understand spoken french much better than me - only subtitles could help me understand all they said.
    I liked this documentary, especially I enjoyed MD speaking french - with subtitles, of course :) Clips from her I Wish You Love show were interesting as they are from that other performance that was not included to VHS or DVD. Some rare photos from the 60's are also shown, Naturally with more never seen before newsreels it would been even more fascinating. I always recall those clips in the film by David Riva, especially MD arriving in Israel in 1966!
    Judging by the photos I've seen the apartment was a recreation. Perhaps there was some real possessions included but the white telephone was not one of them. Very modern looking tables and selves didn't quite fit.
    The "shocking" photo of MD was on the cover of Bunte magazine in May of 1992.
    The last years in Paris are an important part of the legend of Dietrich, I suppose. They have also been a subject of speculation for us who remember her and cherish her legacy. Good taste should never been forgotten.

    1. Sauli, I have quite a hard time understanding that neighbor during her first appearance in the documentary. The person who was easiest for me to understand was Dietrich--maybe because I'm used to hearing non-native French speakers the most (my high school French teacher was in fact from Iran and several of my college professors were American).

      I am always discovering newsreel footage that I've never seen, which must be expensive to reuse in these documentaries.

      That "shocking" photo of MD was one that I was certain had been published in the past. Also, I've got another (unauthorized, I imagine) documentary that shows it. I found it surprising in this documentary because the Rivas must have sanctioned it, and I once received a legal notice for posting that photo, which was supposedly private and which Dietrich would have *hated* me for posting.

      For me, I'm not too terribly interested in Dietrich's final years in comparison to her film career in the '30s and '40s. No matter how many times I see her movies from these decades--or even those home movies--I am always awestruck by Dietrich's preternatural beauty.

      Still, I am fascinated with Dietrich's "retirement" because of her relentless discipline. I'm a bit sarcastic about Dietrich's final years being a tragedy because I personally see more of the comedy in them that makes me forget the unpleasant parts. Dietrich was so witty and such an activist/advocate, and I prefer to re-read Eryk Hanut's account of Dietrich during these years than Maria's.

    2. Bonjour Joseph,

      Chapier was not legitimate to speak about Marlene, he's not a serious critic. He had only a book to sale...

      The "shoking" photo was not censured by the Rivas because it was taken by a grandson when she had 84 to sale it to a German magazine... Was she really agree ? She seems so sad. Others photos were taken and show her sleeping... Scandalous.

      Don't be worry, you have a high level in French, the neighbor has a terrible old Paris accent. Maria speaks a very good French. In others interviews, she imitated her mother and she was very funny.

      I met twice Louis Bozon and he really loved Marlene. His books are more respectful and affectionate than the Maria one. The trouble was Marlene called him 20 times a day ! He was working and had his own private life. I said he did more for Marlene than for his own mother. "Marlene, la femme de ma vie" is quite emphatic, but he's gay, Marlene was really the woman of his life during 25 years. His second book, "Allo mon ange, c'est Marlene" is a new publication of the first, with few modifications.

      The books written by Alain and Norma Bosquet are quite hypocrital.

      I think the documentary is less terrible and pathetic than the end of the Maria's book.

      Amitiés, Fabrice.

      PS : Please forgive my English level, I only know French (of course !) and Spanish.

    3. Fabrice, I've been told a very different story about this photo, so there are too many truths about it--as is the case regarding many of Dietrich's biographical details. Even the Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin newsletter provided a conflicting account--that Peter Riva snapped the photo in 1988 (not Paul when Dietrich was 83, as Laurence states in the Un soir documentary at 48:40?), which was later published by Bunte and Paris Match in May 1992.

      Maybe I'm mixing up all these "final" photo stories, but I do know that Scott of quipped about there being a buyer for whatever "final" Dietrich photo he had to remove from his site after being threatened with a lawsuit, and--now that I see such a photo in this France 5 documentary--I must say that Scott made an apt observation.

      Let me be clear that I see nothing wrong with copyright holders making money off their photos in magazines and documentaries. I merely consider it disingenuous to call people crude or tasteless for sharing a photo online when it is in fact being licensed for use. Just call a spade a spade, say the photo is your property, and ask that people take it down when they haven't paid to use it! I hope that whoever licensed this photo in the France 5 documentary realizes that they've opened a Pandora's box because it's very easy to make screen captures of that documentary and share that photo. The same goes for all those recordings that Louis Bozon shared of Dietrich, which will likely be on YouTube within a few months.

      By the way, Fabrice, your English is excellent, and you make many interesting points. I will have to read the Bosquets' books and Bozon's book some day because my perspective of Dietrich is far too American.

  2. Hi Joseph

    I've just had a chance to take a look at the docu (although I don't speak French! -- luckily the Riva interviews were English). I agree with Sauli that the "alternate" footage from the TV special was fascinating.

    The "last photo", after having been published soon after Marlene's death, seems to have been withdrawn for the next two decades. At least in this film, it was presented in a reasonably tasteful way.

    Apparently, Marlene was a willing participant in the taking of the photo (whether she wanted it released is another question) -- which doesn't seem to be the case of (later?) photos of her, where she hides her face. One wonders about the circumstances surrounding these.

    There is at least one paparazzo photo of this era that I know of that appears to be genuine.

    I agree though: Marlene's seclusion isn't of very great interest to me either, although I can understand the fascination with its grand guignol aspects.

  3. By the way -- what's with that wig on the bedside table! And it looks synthetic, too!

    1. I know! It looked like the wig that Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman. No self-respecting call girl would touch that thing, let alone Marlene, and with the way the camera kept cutting to it, I expected it to get up and start brushing itself.

  4. Joseph and Fabrice, Once more about that photo. As far as I know the photo shown in the documentary was taken by Paul Riva at the end of July 1984.

    1. I'm sure you're right. The photo mentioned in the MDCB newsletter must have been a different one altogether. By the way, have you read the Leslie Frewin biography? I'm reading it now. It's hilariously inaccurate but is the first English-language Dietrich bio, I think, so I'll have to write about it some time.

  5. Il est parfois difficile de connaître la "vérité vraie", comme on dit parfois chez nous. Peter n' a pas donné la même version des derniers instants qu'en mai 1992...
    En 1992, il racontait que Marlene s'était éteinte seule pendant qu'il faisait les démarches pour gérer ses comptes et lui trouver une place en maison médicalisée... Marlene aurait dit comme dernier mot "rest" avant qu'il ne parte.
    Dans le film, il raconte son dernier soupir comme s'il était présent, et elle serait partie en disant "Maria"... Version plus acceptable.
    Je rappelle ces détails un peu morbides pour souligner le peu de sympathie que m'inspire la famille Riva. Il y a dans le livre (paru trop tôt) de Maria des passages odieux et indignes. Peter n'aurait jamais dû prendre "la" photo. Je ne crois pas que Marlene le lui ait demandé. Je n'y crois pas. Faire partie de la famille d'un mythe présente des tentations. Dommage.

    1. Je vais me mettre le pied dans la bouche si j'essaie de vous repondre en francais sur la famille Riva. Alors...

      I believe that "la vérité vraie" would be more or less like the expression "the whole truth." Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain the whole truth when a person changes his story. Truthfully, I don't know much about the story/stories of Dietrich's death (although I've read a sentence or two about Norma Bosquet's claims that it was suicide), and this documentary has been my first exposure to such a detailed account. Currently, I'm reading David Bret's book and noticed that he discusses Dietrich's death further ahead, but I plan on writing about that book and my thoughts about Bret's authority as a Dietrich biographer after I've finished it.

      Of course, you are sharing views about much broader topics that I know many Dietrich fans share. In the past, I've considered Maria's book spiteful and cruel, although I'm more ambivalent about it now. What I wonder is whether past efforts to suppress or remove online materials have renewed animosity against the Riva family that Maria's book had initially fomented. Thankfully, that scourge seems to be a thing of the past, though. Has anyone seen any recently-uploaded YouTube videos with removal notices that mention Die Marlene Dietrich Collection GmbH? I haven't. Peter Riva's use of Facebook indicates to me that the family truly understands the value of all these Web 2.0 sites, but more work is needed.

      Even though my opinions bear no weight, I would recommend that those in charge of the official site use WordPress's free software to revamp everything. For ages, that notice about an upcoming blog has been up, and I hope that what I envision is what they also have in mind. Wouldn't it be delightful if MDCB could share its treasures the way FIDM Museum does? In its current state, the official site is embarrassingly outdated and must annoy users with its auto-loading audio. Also, I know I can't be the only one who laughs when "Marlene Dietrich Office Web Site" appears at the top of Dietrich-related search results.

    2. Oh, and I forgot to mention why I find the official site's announcement about a blog so exciting--PDF newsletters are like pagers, 8-tracks, or carrier pigeons. For goodness sake, that format should have been retired when blogs became popular.

  6. Le livre de Maria est (malheureusement ?) indispensable. Il a changé l'image de Marlene, du moins ici. Avant le livre, Marlene était Sainte-Marlène, grande actrice, chanteuse volontaire, femme admirable, résistante courageuse, cuisinière attentionnée, amie des intellectuels...
    Le livre de Maria en a fait un monstre narcissique et froid. Le problème est que les biographies rédigées en France sur Marlene depuis 1992, se contentent de résumer le livre de Maria en 200 pages...
    Les gens n'aiment pas les êtres remarquables, ils insultent leur médiocrité. Ils préfèrent retenir de Marlene la "légende noire" et oublier la femme exceptionnelle, avec ses défauts inévitables. Cela les rassure. Marlene était trop belle, elle l'est restée trop longtemps.
    Il faudrait une nouvelle biographie de Marlene, utilisant les révélations de sa fille, mais sans passion.

    "J'ai du respect pour l'artiste Marlene Dietrich, mais je n'en ai aucun pour la femme". Maria Riva, revue VSD 1992. Je trouve cette phrase terrible.

    Pourquoi ne pas publier les carnets de Marlene ?

  7. Have just watched the French documentary on YouTube,and can't really make any comment,as my french is non-existent,my really french teacher at school called me "the red lamp"at the back of the train,well really it was like a foreign language to me.Some nice photo's I hadn't seen before but the "last" photo they used was different to the one published in Bunte,same session but very slightly different placing of the pillows and cushions etc.Bunte says 1988.Paul

    1. Paul, good catch! I checked the photo that was sent to me a few years ago, which appears to be from the same session--just from a higher angle, making the pillows appear higher as well. The photo in the documentary is more flattering. Marlene doesn't look quite prepared to pose in the photo sent to me.

  8. I have finally watched the DVD with English subtitles and thought it was great,though the neighbour was a waste of time.You would think there was nothing else to say but I found it a fascinating story.The alternative TV show clips were worth the money alone.I have that "alternative"show on very scratchy video somewhere.Paul