“You should go back to Austria and learn some manners! Learn what Mama Schell didn’t teach you! Nobody has ever walked out on me, like a prima donna!”
That was Marlene Dietrich, raging at her documentarian Maximilian Schell toward the conclusion of Schell’s brilliant, nasty, mesmerizing 1984 film “Marlene” (now just out on DVD).
Schell, who had also appeared in one of Dietrich’s last films, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” had come to Paris, where Marlene was holed up, a recluse, to talk to the great star. But more than anything, he wanted her on camera.
Dietrich was having none of that. The very reason she was a recluse was to prevent the world from seeing her in old age, infirm, stripped of her glamour (the polar opposite of Miss Elizabeth Taylor, who has gone where no great beauty has gone before, almost merciless in her advocacy of the attitude, “This is it, this is life, this is aging and illness, get over it!”).
And so began a fierce battle of wills between the temperamental pair of divas, Dietrich and Schell. Mr. wOw loves a good bitch-fight.
Perhaps even more galling to Schell than the star’s refusal to be filmed was Marlene’s maddening unelaborate yes-and-no answers, her denial of certain aspects of her career that were indisputable facts. She was going to tell her story the way she wanted to: “This is a documentary on my career, baby; it’s about my work.” Often, when Schell would compliment a certain movie, Dietrich would dismiss him — “Eh, kitsch!” Or she would deflect a question with, “It’s in my book; read it.” The documentary is studded with fabulous clips of Dietrich, the fantasy figure of movies, Josef von Sternberg’s creation who left her creator in the dust, forging a spectacular 40-year career in movies and on stage.
Throughout the film, Dietrich is pragmatic, practical, unsentimental. “When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.” (She is hardboiled until the powerful conclusion.)
Marlene was in this only for the money, and she reminds Schell he is there for the same reason — and that he is in her presence to do it her way. This is “only a documentary,” and Schell should not kid himself that he could compare with any kind of director that she had ever dealt with.
When she can get away from battling the nettlesome Mr. Schell, Marlene speaks of her work during the war years and her burning hatred for Hitler. (Dietrich entertained the troops in WW II close to the battle lines. Had she been captured by the Germans — her own people — she would surely have been put to death as a traitor.)
It behooves every fan of Dietrich, and every student of film and stardom, to watch “Marlene.” She’s Norma Desmond with Prussian discipline and good sense! She’s not looking to make a comeback; she wants to make some cash!
And what a blessing for Schell that he was unable to capture Dietrich. It led him to fashion a far more fascinating glimpse of the icon in twilight than any revelation her 80-something face would have provided.
Mr. wOw’s one complaint? The DVD box cover. They use a shot of Dietrich from one of her early films, “Morocco,” perhaps. It’s beautiful, but doesn’t compare to the original art — a sketch of Dietrich in her famous top hat and men’s tuxedo, holding a mask of her own face. It’s a perfect image; rarely has a movie poster conveyed so accurately what the film delivers.