Marlene Dietrich: an icon of sexual liberation and power in the early talkies

Berlin, early 1930s. In the German capital liberation and ease was breathed. In a period between the wars and a global economic crisis, German cinema was the only one to match high-end American productions. It was the end of silent cinema and that country promised quality productions in a context of the emergence of artistic avant-gardes. However, the rise of Nazism forced several stars from that country to emigrate to the American continent.

Marlene Dietrich, a charismatic, androgynous and bisexual artist who had already gained some notoriety for her performances in cabarets and theaters over the past decade, displayed an undeniable talent. The Berlin atmosphere was still infected by the illusion of happiness of the crazy 1920s and there was an interest in hedonism at a time when curiosity about the ease of the body arose.

“I dress for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men,” Marlene Dietrich told The Observer in 1960: “Clothes bore me, I prefer to wear jeans, I adore them,” she added. The star attracted attention for breaking the mold of what had then been seen on the big screen, as well as real life: he said he had “the heart of a gentleman.”

Marlene Dietrich.

In France at that time it was illegal for women to wear pants, and technically it was until 2013. In one of her most notable anecdotes, after a long trip across the Atlantic, the police warned the artist that they were going to arrest her if she walked around Paris dressed like that. It was 1933 but she did not flinch, she got off the boat and also wore a suit without shame.

It was not until his participation in The blue angel (1930), the first German talkies success, which was catapulted to stardom, receiving offers to participate in Hollywood films. That year was prolific for Dietrich; from then on she worked under the direction of Josef Von Sterberg, who discovered her and with whom she would work on more audiovisual successes on advanced and daring themes for the time.

The gender stereotype is broken in Morocco (1930), from the same year, a film in which Dietrich plays a woman who is involved in a love triangle with two men during the Rif War in the same country. She appears dressed in a suit, attracts the attention of all the people in a room, being able to embody femininity and masculinity at the same time. With a comfortable and determined attitude, he kisses a woman while the cabaret attendees watch her.

More about Marlene Dietrich

Both productions are mentioned in the documentary The hidden celluloid (1995), a documentary that reviews the representation of LGTBQ + in the history of cinema, in which emphasis is placed on the characters that Dietrich played, personifications that were not far from what she really was. During her life she had affairs with men and women, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Erich Maria, John Gilbert, Mercedes de Acosta – confirmed by her own daughter, Maria Riva – among several others, while she was married and maintained an open relationship with the filmmaker Rudof Sieber, with whom he never divorced.

She was close friends with the American theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, after he discovered what her inclinations were: “He has no sexual preferences”, to which she replied: “There are so many people trying to understand me and only he did.” Tynnan recounted in his autobiography El diario of Kenneth Tynnan (2001), who writes about the conversations he had with the actress, who also had a relationship with the former president of the United States, John. F. Kennedy.

Marlene once told Tynnan that she liked being in the company of powerful men. One day, Kennedy invited her to the White House at seven in the afternoon, but she had a problem with the schedule, at eight she was invited to the -at that time- Statler Hotel in Washington, DC where they organized a tribute in her honor for helping two thousand Jewish veterans of the Second War, efforts that made her see in Germany as a traitor. They drank wine, shared intimacy, but it was the last time they saw each other. “There is only one I want to know. Have you slept with my father?” He asked. “No, Jack – that’s what his close ones used to say – I’ve never done it,” she replied.

Marlene Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich put the movies aside to dedicate herself completely to acting in her purest style, in cabarets around the world. She stayed that way for decades until an accident in 1975 – she broke her leg while doing a show in Sydney, Australia – forced her to stop acting at 73.

After that incident, she spent her last years secluded in her apartment in Paris, writing in her life diary, according to Dietrich’s biography, written by her daughter Maria Riva. She was addicted to pills and alcohol and “spent the rest of her days in bed.” She didn’t see anyone, she had grown old and she didn’t want anyone to see her either. In the documentary Marlene (1984) directed by Maximilian Schell, the same actress acted as narrator, but refused to appear and be photographed.

He died in that same place in 1992, when he was 90 years old, due to kidney failure. Marlene Dietrich continues to be remembered as an icon of sexual freedom, an attitude that she never abandoned and that marked her biography and that of other contemporary artists who were inspired by her style.