Dietrich: Empress of Signs

Can we really read faces, even those that come at us so plainly crying their meanings? Can it be right to speak, as Charles Affron does, of Garbo's acting, when he seems to be describing what he finds in her face? Large questions about interpretation, and not only of faces, hover here. I shall say for the moment that I think we really can read faces, but that accounting for our reading is a quite different story—rather like explaining a joke, as distinct from getting it. I want to read, to register a reading of, Dietrich's face, particularly as it appears in Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress (1934); but I also want to confess to a feeling of helplessness, because that is part of the reading.

Let's go back to the shimmer of the myth, the fur-haloed head. What is the myth? The general myth of stardom, as I've said, of a perfection so stylized and mystified that it scarcely seems human. But there is also a particular Dietrich myth. She is not just a star, but this star; the star she is, as Bishop Butler nearly said, and not another one. This myth has to do with the lure and the durability of an impossible innocence, an innocence, what's more, which finally turns into something else, an odd mixture of endurance and independence.

Much of what Dietrich "means" in films is caught between her two most frequent looks: her eyes are wide open, trusting, she is a woman who dares to be a child; her eyes are hooded by the heavy lids, she is smoking, shut away in her worldliness and scorn. Does she endure by becoming hard and cynical? No, because then she wouldn't be able to go back to her vulnerable look. She endures by being able to travel between the two looks, or to hint at the one hiding in the other. The heart of the myth, it seems to me, is this. Dietrich's beauty is so refined and geometrical, so abstract, so much a matter of smooth skin, carved cheekbones, and eyebrows that owe everything to draughtsmanship and nothing to hair, that she seems untouchable and therefore untouched—whatever the implications of the plots of her movies, or of the fact that she had a daughter in 1925. It is worth comparing this face with those of the pudgy vamps of an earlier generation, or indeed with that of the much pudgier Dietrich herself in The Blue Angel (1930). Sternberg, seeing Dietrich in Berlin, was first attracted, he said, by her air of "cold disdain," and he helped turn her face into a mask with this meaning: Andrew Sarris, writing about The Scarlet Empress, identifies a "glacial guile" in Dietrich. She herself told Maximilian Schell in Marlene (1983) that she was sure Sternberg was interested in her apparent lack of interest: since she was sure she wouldn't get the part he was recruiting for, she decided not to care.

All this finds its way into her screen presence. Of course "disdain" and "guile" are ways of moralizing the curious distance that every viewer perceives in Dietrich's performances. We see her absence, so to speak. Her heart is not in the movie, and the lurid narrative form of this perception is to say that the character she plays has no heart. I don't doubt that Dietrich's rumored sexual preferences have a role here, although I would also guess that even a heteromaniac could be less than wild about Clive Brook; and some of her aloofness is plainly just metallic bad acting. She is not in Garbo's class as a stylist. But I am interested here in the icon and its compulsions. Marilyn Monroe projected an alarming, almost hysterical innocence. Dietrich projects nothing of the kind, but we lend her innocence, because we can't bear to suspect such beauty—or at least the beauty presented to us in certain romantic shots. And yet of course—here is the contradiction that gives the myth its life and trouble—this kind of beauty is a treasure and a temptation, a goldmine, both in countless movie plots and in an actress's life, and it is impossible to believe that the world's collectors and prospectors have not had their hands on it. "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." I suppose this famous sentence, as written, was meant to conjure up the sad, soupy story of the fallen woman, unhappy victim of poverty and rampaging male desire. As Dietrich says it, it suggests a fine, barely damaged superiority, as if anything men could do to her could only be done by sheer force of numbers. The same crushing quality, the note of insolence verging on indifference, appears later in the same film, when Werner Oland, as a prosperous revolutionary leader, invites Dietrich to come and live at his nearby palace. "In time you will weary of men," he says, playing the man who knows the human condition and the mutability of the passions. Dietrich, with a mildness that is itself an insult, says, "I'm weary of you now."

She is not innocent after all, and she is not invulnerable. She has been hurt, and her very kindnesses show traces of pain. But her story is not that of the brave defeat Garbo so wonderfully portrayed, and it is not that of the warm-hearted whore Dietrich was so often, especially in her later films, asked to embody. It is the story of weathering out storms that destroy nearly everyone else, preserving a purity where most people are smudged, and her continuing stage appearances confirmed this piece of the myth. The slurred, drooping voice did the old songs well, but the main feature of the spectacle was the visible conquest of time: a taut, trim woman of sixty putting flabby forty-year olds to shame. Dietrich disappeared into her own shape the way Garbo disappeared into her New York City hiding.

Within the films, though, this extraordinary endurance of the chosen self is expressed as a change of face, a replacement of the romantic, "feminine" aura by a jaunty, mocking "male" gaze. As I shall suggest a little later, this change of face is the whole subject of The Scarlet Empress. In Shanghai Express the soft-focus furs give way to Clive Brook's peaked cap, which Dietrich lifts off his head and places on her own, flicking it back to settle at a raffish angle. She looks at such moments, if I may step carefully into a thicket of un‐ deconstructed assumptions, not like a woman dressed as a man, but like a boy trying to ape the heavy gestures of manhood—or better, like a brilliant parodist of a boy's attempts at such apery. She doesn't impersonate males, she turns them into language, assemblages of signs of malehood. The trick is so complicated that I don't entirely trust my account of it, but I think Dietrich's persistent femininity— small bones, smooth skin, faint eyebrows—makes it clear that the parody is a parody; while her aloofness, her obvious distance from all the easy conventions of womanliness, makes the trick really eerie, since it seems simultaneously to underscore sexual difference and to cause it to wobble. A test of this reading is to ask whether Dietrich ever really looks like a man, whether we are ever in any doubt about her sex (or even her gender). If she doesn't (if we aren't), then several recent interpretations of the icon need to be revised.

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