Marlene Dietrich was a German-born actress, singer and cabaret performer. She rose to international fame in 1930, starring as a seductive cabaret singer in the German film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) directed by Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939 and spent the war years working on films such as Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Spoilers (1942) for Paramount Pictures, as well as performing for troops in America, Europe and North Africa. Dietrich refused to work in Nazi Germany, despite being offered highly-paid contracts. She also raised money to help Jews escape from Germany. Dietrich received the French Légion d’honneur and American Medal of Freedom for her work during the war, which she described as ‘the only important thing I’ve done.’
Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in the Schöneberg district of Berlin to a family of jewellery makers. Her father, a police lieutenant, died in 1907. She combined her first names and was known as ‘Marlene’ from the age of eleven. Young Marlene wanted to be a concert violinist, but injured her finger and pursued acting instead. She attended the Max Reinhardt Drama School (having failed the first audition) and played minor stage and cabaret roles, supporting herself by working in a factory. She appeared in a bit-part role as a lady’s maid in the silent film Der kleine Napoleon (The Little Napoleon) in 1923, and met her husband, Rudolf Seiber, on the set of Tragödie der Liebe (Tragedy of Love, 1923) although they were estranged for most of their married life. They had a daughter, Maria, in 1924.
Dietrich became an international success after her appearance in Der Blaue Engel, in which she sang ‘Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,’ more commonly known in its English translation, ‘Falling in Love Again,’ which would become her signature song. Following this success Dietrich moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. She worked with Sternberg on seven films including Morocco (1930), Dishonoured (1931), Shanghai Express (1932) and Blonde Venus (1932), and become one of America’s highest paid film stars. Whilst travelling to London in 1933 Dietrich was approached by Nazi Party members who tried to persuade her to return to Germany and become the ‘pretty face’ of the Third Reich. When she refused, her films were banned. It is alleged that Hitler proposed Dietrich become his mistress; when she refused he had all copies of Der Blaue Engel destroyed except for one, which he kept for himself.
Dietrich applied for American citizenship and became a naturalised US citizen in 1939. She set up a fund with Austrian filmmaker Billy Wilder to help Jews escape from Germany, and her salary for the 1937 film Knight Without Armor went towards helping refugees. She also helped to sell war bonds when the US entered the war in 1941 and performed for troops across America from 1941-43 as an honourary Colonel in the army. She also performed for troops in Algeria, Britain, France and Italy from 1944-45, and made a short journey to Germany. Dietrich continued to appear in films during the war and worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. At the end of the war Dietrich reconnected with her sister and nephew who had been running a cinema in Belsen, Germany, which was frequented by Nazis involved with the running of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At first Dietrich defended her family against accusations of collaboration, but she would later claim that she did not have a sister. Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in November 1947 for her work selling war bonds, and received the French Légion d’honneur in 1951.
She continued touring and performing, working as a cabaret artist from the end of the war until the 1970s. During this time she formed a professional partnership with composer and arranger Burt Bacharach, who arranged music to show off her low vocal range. In 1960 Dietrich performed in West Germany, East Germany and Israel. Whilst performing in Israel, she asked for permission from her audience – many of whom were Holocaust survivors – to sing in German, breaking the taboo on using German in Israel at that time. She was awarded the Israeli Medallion of Valor in 1965, becoming both the first German-born person and the first woman to receive such an honour.
Dietrich continued performing until she was in her mid-70s. During her final years, she lived in Paris as a virtual recluse, and provided the commentary for a 1984 documentary, Marlene, about her life, although she refused to be filmed. Dietrich died in her sleep in 1992 at the age of 90 and is buried in Berlin. When asked about her experience leaving Germany and touring Europe during the war, Marlene commented that ‘it was not a heart-breaking time, I did what I thought was right. I did the best I could.’
By Abaigh McKee
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Anon. (2008) ‘On this Day: Obituary, Marlene Dietrich’ The New York Times (www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1227.html; accessed 29/07/2016)
Anon. (2016) ‘Biography: Marlene Dietrich’ Deutsche Kinemathek Museum Für Film und Fernsehen (www.marlene.com/biography; accessed 1/8/2016)
Anon. (n.d.) ‘Marlene Dietrich in Israel’ World Zionist Organisation: The Central Zionist Archives (www.zionistarchives.org.il/en/AttheCZA/AdditionalArticles/Pages/MarleneDietrich2.aspx; accessed 4/8/2016)
Bronfen, E. (2003) ‘Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in “The Blue Angel”’ New German Critique, 89, 9-31
Dietrich, M. (1965, January 4) ‘Desert Island Discs: Marlene Dietrich’ BBC Radio 4 (presented by Roy Plumley, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009y4dy; accessed 1/8/2016)
Loewenstein, J. and Tatlock, L. (1992) ‘The Marshall Plan at the Movies: Marlene Dietrich and Her Incarnations’ The German Quarterly 65, 3/4, 429-442