26 December 2012

Dietrich vs Garbo: Dishonored & Mata Hari

Pitting Marlene Dietrich against Greta Garbo may be an unfair battle on a blog devoted to La Dietrich, but I've always wanted to compare the movies they made during the Great Depression, when their rivalry roared. Thus, I give you my thoughts on Dishonored and Mata Hari, two films that feature World War I women spies whose feminine foibles ultimately lead to their executions.

According to John Baxter, Josef von Sternberg whipped up Dishonored as an answer to Garbo's Mata Hari. When I read this, I thought, "Sternberg was a visionary, but I never realized that he was also a prophet!" Garbo Forever indicates that Mata Hari was in production during the fall of 1931, a year after Marlene made Dishonored, but let this not mislead us because Garbo Forever also quotes text from the November 9, 1930 issue of The New York Times, which suggests that the Mata Hari story had been a Garbo vehicle for quite some time.

In a later NYT article (March 15, 1931), movie critic Mordaunt Hall took a more diplomatic stance and wrote that "it was reported simultaneously through the offices of Paramount Publix and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were going to play the role of Mata Hari." Regardless of which screen siren had first dibs on the spy role, Dishonored premiered on March 5, 1931, giving everyone working on Mata Hari ample time to steer the film in a different direction, and I shall explore whether they did. . . .

Watch out, X27! You might attract a Russian spy with those stems!
From the onset, Dishonored and Mata Hari confront us with dishonorable deaths--suicide and execution respectively. We must pick up on the clues to learn the details--not a difficult task. In Dishonored, a prostitute in X27's (Dietrich) building offs herself a la Sylvia Plath; in Mata Hari, a traitor is shot by a firing squad for divulging secrets to a bewitching woman. We don't initially see Mata Hari's namesake siren (Garbo), but Dishonored's vamp X27 makes her entrance even before authorities remove her colleague's body, allowing us to enjoy a close-up of her legs as she ties her stockings with whorish gusto.

Usually directors--including Sternberg--have withheld Marlene from us in the way that George Fitzmaurice delays Greta's arrival in Mata Hari. Think of the times that Sternberg teases us with Lola-Lola's fleshy image in The Blue Angel (e.g., the poster, the postcard) before we observe her in the flesh. Of course, Lola-Lola is an "artiste," whereas X27 is a streetwalker, without the slightest pretense. The incongruity of X27 peddling her body and a corpse carted through a crowd create a perverse street scene that heralds Dishonored as one of Sternberg's most experimental Dietrich collaborations, stylistically and thematically. At the very least, Jo would have earned the esteem of W.B. Yeats, to whom I've seen this quote attributed: "I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind--sex and the dead."

Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer: Dishonored is my personal favorite Marlene movie. My contemporary sensibilities may cause me to wince at the rain and all its hackneyed associations in the flick, but I can appreciate its convincing appearance and sound when I remember that I'm watching a movie made at the end of 1930. Don't let me overlook the visual effects of Mata Hari either. The shadows of the plane flying over the condemned traitors must have been a technical feat as well.

Mata mating with Shiva
Early in both movies, the lady spies show their performance skills--or, in Mata Hari's case, lack thereof. Paying homage to Shiva, Mata Hari lurches onstage as if she's suffering from a sciatic spasm, yet her audience eats up her "exotic" pageantry without a single quibble. Unlike Mata Hari's soon-to-be-lover Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), X27 is quite the critic, mocking the Austrian secret service chief's (Gustav von Seyffertitz) piano tinkering for sounding like a pianola. Would X27 have said the same to Mata, who hammers a few bars for Alexis? If you are disappointed by Mata's showmanship, be thankful that X27 flaunts her piano skills, composing some avant-garde arrangements that serve as code for her dispatches.

X27 fingering her...piano!
Overshadowing X27's fingerwork, Sternberg sets up some extraordinary shots of her showcasing her talents. After having the chief arrested for propositioning her to spy against Austria (a test of her patriotism, we later learn), X27 unexpectedly approaches the camera, which blurs out of focus, and we suddenly realize--upon hearing the strains of "Danube Waves"--that she's taken a seat at her piano. In a later shot, Sternberg spoils us with X27's reflection on the piano lid. We soon see that mirror images are a motif in Dishonored, a subject for further discussion.

Instead, I'll return to the topic of messages, which also propel Mata Hari's plot. Andriani (Lewis Stone), a man who runs a casino and an espionage ring, orders Mata to see General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) and obtain some Russian dispatches. Mata, however, spies on her own terms and doesn't even take the car reserved for her. If gambling scenes and stubborn spies seem like deja-vu, you may recall that X27 flirts with Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen) at a craps table in attempt to catch him--against the secret service chief's orders.

Mata learning where Alexis' loyalties lie first
In fact, both movies present the leading ladies' irrational individualism as an inherent feminine quality, which may ruffle contemporary feminist feathers. Keep in mind, though, that Mata and X27 are employed as spies specifically because of their gender, which allows them to seduce the men from whom they extract military secrets. When Mata realizes that Alexis has Russian dispatches, she targets him with her charms. Truly, the dialogue in this scene trumps any quotes from Dishonored:
ROS: I love you as one adores sacred things.
MATA: What sacred things?
ROS: God, country, honor, you.
MATA: I come last?
ROS: No.
MATA: That's how you said it.
Who would ever suspect this alehouse wench is X27?
After this exchange, Alexis converts to Mata Harism by blowing out a lamp in his Madonna altar, breaking his promise to his mother to keep it burning. While Mata distracts Alexis in the bedroom, her henchmen creep in the darkness to abscond with the dispatches. Certainly, X27 entices men as well, but she exercises a more hands-on approach to retrieving information. Not only does X27 encrypt enemy information in her musical compositions, she ventures into their territory, pretending to be a peasant maid to obtain it. Even during her first mission, the secret service chief is the one who diverts Colonel von Hindau's (Warner Oland) attention so that X27 can herself unfurl a hidden message within a cigarette--quite the opposite of Mata and her henchmen who do the true dirty work.

Don't worry, X27. Your hair is always fierce.
Instead of surrendering to the secret service, Hindau commits suicide by gunshot, revealing not even a hint of self-reflection as we catch a glimpse of him in his cabinet mirror. X27 later demonstrates the purpose of a looking glass in a Sternberg flick--to ensure that she looks good. This moment foreshadows the infamous makeup check that X27 later performs before her execution by assessing her features in the reflection of a soldier's sword. In contrast, Mata Hari shows the mirror's striking potential for introspection when Shubin--unhappy to be an older man who merely supplies the soft lights and champagne while Alexis gets into Mata Hari's sari--pitches his drinking glass at his reflection and shatters it.

Mata running from the clubfoot Jacques. Rumor has it that Garbo played both roles.
Even though Mata and X27 achieve success as spies, their tendency to love overrides their obligations to a nation. Early in Mata Hari, Shubin expresses a man's attitude when he tells Mata that Dubois suspects she's a spy: "Here I am faced with dishonor--and perhaps death--and it means nothing to you!" This isn't quite true because Mata later flees fearfully from Jacques the limping assassin (Michael Visaroff). Likewise, X27's eyes widen with fright during her mishaps, such as when she realizes that Kranau has emptied her revolver of its bullets and during a subsequent scene when Kranau snatches her gun and escapes her surveillance.

X27 receives her sentence.
Still, both accept being condemned as traitors because they remain loyal to the men they love. X27's faithfulness is initially ambiguous because she seems to accidentally drop her gun when questioning Kranau, but as far as her judge is concerned, X27 has aided Kranau in escaping due to a "casual affection" for him, to which X27 responds, "Perhaps I loved him." Mata Hari's actions are even clearer: she kills Shubin with a bullet to prevent him from reporting her beloved Alexis as a spy against Russia.

While both women await their execution in their cells, they surprisingly win sympathy from the clergy. X27 convinces a priest to help grant her two final wishes--access to an in-tune piano and the right to wear her street-walking attire before the firing squad. Mata muses about whether she could have relived her life and served God but dismisses the notion by accepting her death sentence as an inevitability, which brings a younger nun to tears. When Mata's lawyer arrives, this nun yearns for him to inform them that Mata's received a reprieve. Don't forget that the nun caring for Alexis also cries from reading Mata's letter; less impressively, X27's charms only make a young soldier's eyes well up with tears.

Don't cry, Mata! You're going out like a hero!
Finally, I must mention the executions of X27 and Mata. At first glance, the scenes diverge greatly because we see the march, hear the drum and bullets, and watch X27 stumble to her death in the snow--with Kranau nowhere in sight. Out of sight during Mata's final scene is her execution, but she does say an evasive farewell to a blind and clueless Ros. Still, both ultimately get the soldier's treatment. Mata marches in rank and file with her firing squad as if she's one of them, and X27's corpse gets a salute from the secret service chief who plucked her from the streets.

We salute you, X27. And you, too, Mata.


  1. Merci pour votre étude comparée, Joseph. Je n'ai pas vu "Mata Hari", même si le personnage historique m'intéresse, Garbo ne me passionne pas. Je ne suis pas Marlenomaniaque, j'aime aussi Gloria, Bette, Carole, Katharine, Gene et Ava.
    Un moment du film de Marlene m'impressionne toujours : X27 sort d'un bureau, marche dans un couloir pour rejoindre une autre pièce. Bruits de pas et de portes. Ce n'est rien, d'autres cinéastes auraient coupé la scène. Mais à chaque fois, cette scène me coupe la respiration. Sternberg avait su tirer les conclusions du cinéma muet (silences dans "L'Ange bleu", le début de "Morocco"...)
    Sternberg n'aimait pas le titre "Dishonored" et il avait raison. Marlene est si belle devant la mort, après avoir été si cocasse en fille d'auberge.

    P.S. Greta - Œil du Jour est-elle plus douée pour les danses exotiques que Marlene - Jamilla dans "Kismet" ?

  2. Fabrice, are you referring to that scene in which the soldier says, "I could walk with you forever"? To me, that corresponds to the final scene in which X27 asks, "Are we going to walk together again?" Only a lesser director would have cut that scene because it imbues the young soldier character with personality, making him more than merely a bit player. The way in which Sternberg used only diegetic sounds and filmed shots with all kinds of obstructions such as those toy mobiles, laboratory tubes, and confetti makes me think of this movie as the most realist in terms of style among all the Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. With the execution at the end, it's like a pseudo-documentary. I have no idea whether that was Sternberg's intent, though, because his lighting and fades certainly aren't realist. X27 immediately transforms back to herself as soon as Kranau catches her in the inn thanks to lighting.

    I vaguely recall reading a comparison between Mata Hari and a Gypsy dancing bear. If that is the kind of exotic you had in mind, then--yes--she upstaged Jamilla.

    P.S. Because I forgot to mention another comparison--that Kranau and Rosanoff are both aviators--I'll just mention it here lest someone think I didn't consider it!

  3. That gif at the top of this blog entry, of Garbo and Dietrich's faces endlessly morphing, is one of the most mesmerising things have ever seen! Exquisite.

    1. Thanks! That's my first attempt at a morphing gif. Now that I know how to make them, I might have to abandon this blog for Tumblr after all.;)

  4. Thanks for the great post! You make me want to rewatch both movies. Dishonored is also one of my adored Marlene movies, but I have to rewatch Mata Hari to refresh my memory it's been too long to pick up on everything. Lovely screencaps and I agree with bitter69uk, outstanding gif!

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    1. Now, I see where I must have remembered that "bear" comment! Rehan, I came across some M.D. poems that you'd appreciate. Look out for those.

  6. It was when I witnessed Garbo dancing in "Mata Hari" (very badly) that I realized she couldn't touch Dietrich. She was a face, a beautiful face, and a powerful presence. That's all.

    1. The Lady has spoken! I must admit that I admire Garbo's ability to distill a thousand emotions in her eyes, something I can't recall Dietrich ever doing. The suicide scene in Anna Karenina is almost pedestrian with the train bells and whistles competing with the orchestral soundtrack, but those noises modulate to that conflagration in Garbo's eyes, succumbing to such an unexpected pause of silence.

  7. Pour moi, "Dishonored" gagne haut la main ! Je suis un fan inconditionnel de Dietrich et de Garbo, elles me fascinent autant l'une que l'autre. Mais je dois dire que l'ambition de Von Sternberg paye plus que celle de Fitzmaurice. Le premier a pris des risques alors que le second s'est contenté de faire un film classique, typiquement hollywoodien. "Dishonored" est puissant et est, à l'image de Dietrich, d'une beauté à couper le souffle. Certaines scènes sont d'une poésie rarement égalées. "Mata-Hari" est ennuyeux et sent trop le carton-pâte. Dès que j'ai vu "Dishonored" je suis tombé raide dingue amoureux non seulement du film, mais également de von Sternberg dont j'ai regardé toutes ses collaborations avec Dietrich. Les 7 films qu'ils ont fait ensemble sont des chefs-d'oeuvre, dont l'immense beauté est restée intacte (ils sont peut-être même encore plus beau avec le temps).