“If I dressed for myself, I wouldn’t bother at all. Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans. I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” –Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich was of the sultriest actresses of the silver screen. Holding both German and American citizenship, Dietrich’s lengthy career was constantly reinvigorated by her ability to reinvent herself. Identified by an image of glamour and exoticism, Dietrich’s international fame as a performer and ability to captivate audiences led her to be one of the highest-paid actresses of her day.
Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich was born in Berlin to Louis and Wilhelmina Dietrich. Her father was a police lieutenant, while her mother came from a wealthy family who owned a jewelry store and clock-making company. Louis and Wilhelmina would have two children—Marlene and her older sister, Elisabeth—before Louis’ death in 1907.
Dietrich carried out her education at the Auguste-Viktoria Girls’ School and graduated from the Victoria-Luisen-Schule. There, she studied the violin but also became passionate about theater and poetry. While an injury to her wrist prevented her career as a concert violinist, her first job was playing violin in a pit orchestra to accompany silent film screenings in Berlin. After four weeks on the job, she was fired.
Next, Dietrich found work as a chorus girl in several Berlin revues, unsuccessfully auditioning for theatrical director Max Reinhardt’s drama academy. Despite this audition, she continued to work as a chorus girl and even carried out several small dramatic roles under the new stage name of Marlene Dietrich. As a child, Dietrich was nicknamed “Lena” and “Lene”, leading her to combine her first name and nickname in order to form what would become her new first name—Marlene.
Dietrich made her film debut with a minor role in The Little Napoleon (1923). It was around this time that she met her husband, Rudolf Sieber, with whom she would have her only child, Maria Elisabeth Sieber, who was born in 1924.
Dietrich’s stage and film work continued in Berlin and Vienna throughout the 1920s. She played a wide range of stage roles but excelled especially in musicals and reviews. Her roles on screen were also becoming increasingly more substantial. Playing cabaret singer Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) would prove to be her breakthrough role. Director Josef von Sternberg took credit for discovering Dietrich and was skilled at photographing her with his signature uses of light and shadow. In the film, she would introduce what would become her signature song, “Falling in Love Again.”
Reeling from the success of her film, Dietrich moved to the United States and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, the United States’ film distributor for The Blue Angel. Paramount Pictures saw Dietrich as a worthy competitor to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Swedish actress, Greta Garbo, and marketed her as such. She starred in six films directed by von Sternberg at Paramount, carefully cultivating her image of a desirable femme fatale. Dietrich followed von Sternberg’s direction closely—from acting lessons to weight loss—as she made a name for herself in Hollywood.
By 1930, Dietrich was cast as a cabaret singer once again in Morocco (1930). One of the most iconic moments in this film occurs when Dietrich, dressed in masculine attire and a white tie, kisses another woman. The film would earn Dietrich her sole Academy Award nomination.
Morocco was soon followed by box office successes like Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and Song of Songs (1933). Dietrich briefly left Paramount to appear in her first color film, The Garden of Allah (1936). Because her films were costly to produce and her popularity with the public started to decline, she was deemed “box office poison.”
While traveling in London, officials from the Nazi Party approached her with profitable contracts if she returned to Germany as a top film star in the Third Reich. Dietrich refused their offers and instead applied for United States citizenship in 1937 and returned to Paramount to star in Angel (1937). The romantic comedy was not received as well as some of her past works, so Paramount bought out the remainder of her contract.
By 1939, Dietrich accepted an offer to take on roles that contrasted with the ones she usually portrayed. While she received less pay than usual for Destry Rides Again (1939), the film revived her career with a coarse, bawdy role that also allowed her to introduce the song “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.” She found herself playing similar characters in Seven Sinners (1940) and The Spoilers (1942).
Though Dietrich continued to appear in movies directed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder, she found a new passion in supporting the war effort. She and Wilder, as well as several other Germans, created a fund to help Jews and other dissenters in their escape from Germany. Her entire salary for Knight Without Armor (1937) was used to help refugees. She renounced her German citizenship when she officially became an American citizen in 1939, and became one of the first actresses to help sell war bonds in 1941. Dietrich also entertained as part of the USO, traveling to Algeria, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and France. During the USO tour, she sang songs from her films, performed on a musical saw, and had a comedic “mind-reading” act taught to her by Welles. According to Dietrich, her proudest accomplishment was receiving the Medal of Freedom in 1947 for entertaining the troops overseas.
Throughout the 1950s and mid-1970s, Dietrich worked predominantly as a cabaret artist, touring theaters all over the world. One of her most famous cabaret performances occurred in 1953 on the Las Vegas Strip, where she wore a sheer dress designed by Jean Louis. This became a signature look for her and she made many more tours wearing the same daring gown in the first half of her act. By the second act, she would change into a top hat and tails. In her shows, it was typical for her to sing songs associated with her career. She also other popular songs of the time that were often associated with male singers.
Though she would perform on Broadway in 1967 and 1968, her health began to decline shortly afterwards. Suffering from poor circulation in her legs, she became dependent upon painkillers and alcohol. To complicate the matter, Dietrich fell of a stage and broke her thigh during a performance in 1975. Her final camera role would be in Just a Gigolo (1979).
Dietrich spent that last 11 years of her life bedridden, allowing very few family members and employees to visit her apartment. However, she was in constant contact with life outside her apartment, writing many letters and having several phone conversations in a day. In the meantime, she published the autobiography Nehmt nur mein Leben (Take Just My Life) in 1979, and participated in a series of audio interviews for the documentary film called Marlene (1984).
Dietrich died of renal failure in Paris on May 6, 1992, at age 90. She was buried next to her mother in Berlin. The two rest at the Artist’s Cemetery in Berlin, close to Dietrich’s birthplace.
Today, Dietrich is remembered for her films, glamorous image, and her dedication to various causes of importance to her. In addition to the passions Dietrich pursued in life, Dietrich is also remembered as an actress who defied conventional gender roles, often challenging how women were portrayed on screen. Dietrich was also a fashion icon, preferring the top designers of her day but also appreciating the comfort and style of men’s clothing. Moreover, there are several locations and tributes to Dietrich that exist to this day.
Dietrich’s birthplace at Leberstraße 65 in Berlin-Schoneberg possesses two plaques in memory of Dietrich on either side of the front door. One plaque is made of porcelain and was affixed there in celebration of Berlin’s 750th anniversary. Translated from German, the plaque reads:
“Tell me, where have all the flowers gone”
27 December 1901-6 May 1992
Actress and Singer
She was one of the few German actresses that attained international significance. Despite tempting offers by the Nazi regime, she emigrated to the USA and became an American citizen. In 2002, the city of Berlin posthumously mad her an honorary citizen.
“I am, thank God, a Berliner.”
The other plaque is made of bronze, depicting a portrait of Dietrich from a 1937 Cecil Beaton photograph of her. The perimeter of the plaque is decorated with the titles of some of her films, reading: “Die Blonde Venus, Destry Rides Again, A Foreign Affair, Der Blaue Engel, Marokko, Shanghai Express, Angel.”
Dietrich’s alma mater, the Victoria-Luisen-Schule, is now the Goethe-Gymnasium. It is located at Gasteiner Straße 23 in Berlin.
The Deutsches Theater Berlin, where Dietrich made her first stage appearance in 1922, remains today. It is one of the most prominent companies in Berlin, located at Schumannstraße 13, 10117 in Berlin.
Dietrich married Sieber at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on May 14, 1923. It stands at Breitscheidplatz, 1078, in Berlin.
The Blue Angel was filmed at the Babelsberg Studios, located at August-Bebel-Str. 26-53, 14482 in Potsdam, Germany. Today, the Studios’ biggest soundstage is named Marlene Dietrich Hall.
Dietrich first performed songs from The Blue Angel live onstage for the first time at the Tingel-Tangel Theater, a forerunner of the Vaganten Teater, in 1931. This is one of the oldest stages in Berlin. The Vaganten Buhne is located at Kantstraße 12A, 10623 in Berlin.
In addition to the many locations Dietrich frequented in Berlin, the town created yet another tribute to her. In 1997, Berlin named a town square for her, called Marlene Dietrich Platz. During the Berlin Film Festival, one can spot many film stars in the square.
When Dietrich passed, much of her estate was sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, after U.S. institutions showed no interest in her collection. Her items became the core of the exhibition at the Filmmuseum in Berlin, showcasing over 3,000 film and stage costumes, as well as personal outfits; 15,000 photographs; and over 300,000 documents and pieces of correspondence. The collection also include various film posters and sound recordings. The Filmmusem is located at Potsdamer Straße 2, 10785.
Back in the U.S., Dietrich’s Manhattan apartment at 993 Park Avenue sold in 1998.
While Dietrich continues to be enjoyed through her many films, it is a comfort to see the many tributes to her in her hometown and beyond.