Toronto
2 min

Falling in love again

Dietrich remains an icon

INDELIBLE. Marlene Dietrich retrospective at Cinematheque. Credit: Xtra files

Marlene Dietrich was in the news again last year, as recipient of a free lifetime transit pass from her hometown, Berlin. What good does it do an icon to get such a gift when she’s 102 years old (and dead)?



Never mind, respect must be paid. And Cinematheque is doing just that in an orgy of Dietrich films, many in restored 35mm prints. Now through June, they’ll show nearly 20 of her best features, plus two documentaries. For some, it’s a chance to worship and chuckle; for others, to get acquainted and be impressed.



Dietrich is a piece of work (for full listings, see www.bell.ca/cinematheque). Though TV reruns and concert tours kept Dietrich vivid for the baby boomer generation, she may be a cipher to the young. But Dietrich was perhaps the first example of a completely manufactured cultural icon, a persona she invested with mystery, wit and staying power. Film preserves her at her prime – cool, leggy, androgynous and very, very white. (Such artifice is not without its campy side, but that, too, has aged well.) Her influence is evident in stars as diverse as David Bowie and Madonna.



Hers are indelible images, of which no self-respecting young dyke or fag can afford to remain unaware: the tuxedoed, girl- kissing Amy Jolie of Morroco; Blond Venus emerging from a gorilla suit; a train corridor meditation with cigarette in Shanghai Express. Later came her catfight with Una Merkal in Destry Rides Again, her white naval officer’s uniform in Seven Sinners and the world-weary saloon singers of A Foreign Affair and Stage Fright.



Within this retrospective, there are many ways to approach her oeuvre. As dramatic actress (Witness For The Prosecution, Judgment At Nuremberg), or as a silent film actor (in two rare German features).



Or musically, from The Blue Angel in which she sang confidently, if imperfectly. Fredrich Hollander was court composer, joined later by Frank Loesser, Robin and Rainger, Cole Porter and Edith Piaf. Dietrich’s choice of material always announced her chic, wisdom and survivor’s toughness.



But first and last is the physical beauty, developed by her and director Joseph Von Sternberg, and carefully maintained through a 50-year career. Late in life, wheeling through an airport with daughter Maria, the star was appalled by the sight of ordinary humanity around her. “Who would have thought there were so many ugly people in the world?” Dietrich mused. “No wonder they pay us so much!”



All screenings are at Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W); call (416) 968-FILM.