Marlene Dietrich in Photos: A Study in Contrasts

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PARIS — It’s a common complaint among people who dislike photographs of themselves: “That looks nothing like me!” Most of them don’t possess anything close to the star wattage of Marlene Dietrich. Yet the movie legend expressed similar angst during her first meeting with the film director Josef von Sternberg, in Berlin in 1929.

The occasion was Dietrich’s successful screen test for “The Blue Angel,” the 1930 movie that propelled her to fame, in which she played a saucy nightclub singer, Lola Lola. In his eccentric memoir, “Fun in a Chinese Laundry: An Autobiography,” Sternberg, who went on to direct Dietrich in six more movies, described the actress telling him “that it was impossible for anyone to photograph her to look like herself.”

But Dietrich, who died in 1992 at the age of 90, adored a challenge, and she spent the rest of her career doing all that she could to bend photographers to her will in that “impossible” search. Two exhibitions on different sides of the Atlantic — “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, through April 15; and “Obsession Marlene” at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris through Jan. 7 — explore how Dietrich sought to express the many facets of her fluid personality.

Dietrich in 1918. Born in 1901, she had a strict Prussian upbringing and a conventional, middle-class childhood.CreditDeutsche Kinemathek/Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin

Dietrich’s pictorial legacy is built on thousands of images, including iconic portraits by the photographers Irving Penn, Milton H. Greene, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold and Cecil Beaton. The French art collector Pierre Passebon, who curated the MEP show, owns roughly 2,000 such images, from Dietrich as a pigtailed 6-year-old to an invasive paparazzo shot of her as a reclusive old woman, cloistered in her Paris apartment. In an interview, Mr. Passebon, whose exhibition advertises his obsession, said that he “wanted to show what Marlene was like as time passed.”

After the box-office success of “The Blue Angel,” which was released in German and English-language versions, Dietrich arrived in Hollywood in 1930 with a contract from Paramount. The timing was auspicious for the 29-year-old actress and cabaret singer, who brought with her some of the glamour of Weimar Germany’s gender-bending night life. Shifting social mores meant that the Hollywood studios began to produce far racier movies.

Dietrich’s first Paramount movie, “Morocco” (1930), directed by Sternberg — who at that point was her lover — set the tone for future transgressions. Dietrich again plays a cabaret singer, a role that would come to define her career, and this time one who falls in love with a member of the Foreign Legion (Gary Cooper).

It became famous for a scene as well as a photograph. In the scene, Dietrich, wearing a man’s tailcoat, performs a song and spontaneously kisses a woman in the audience on the lips. “In real life, she had numerous affairs with women,” Mr. Passebon said. “To be openly bisexual in the ′40s and ′50s took guts, which Dietrich had in abundance.”

Dietrich kissing an American soldier in New York in 1945.CreditIrving Haberman/IH Images, via Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe, NM

The photograph is among several Dietrich devised to decorate her character’s apartment, which is full of pictures of herself. In the portrait, shot by the Paramount stills photographer Eugene Robert Richee, Dietrich wears a top hat, a white tie and tuxedo, and a cigarette dangles suggestively from her mouth. The androgynous look, which Dietrich said had been inspired by the English music hall performer Vesta Tilley, became the actress’s signature, and she appears to have guarded it jealously.

Kate Clarke Lemay, the American historian who curated the National Portrait Gallery show, came across the famous still in Dietrich’s archive at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. In a telephone interview, she said that Dietrich had written on the print, “Stolen by Madonna.”

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition takes its lead from something Dietrich told a journalist from the British newspaper The Observer in 1960, when she was at the height of her fame as a cabaret artist: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.”

Ms. Lemay said that she “wanted to highlight Dietrich’s intelligence, her own articulation of her image, and her own hand in sustaining and creating her image.” This meant moving beyond the enduring idea that Dietrich was Sternberg’s puppet and entirely submissive about the way she was lit and represented.

Dietrich aboard the ocean liner Europa in 1933.CreditPaul Cwojdzinski/Deutsche Kinemathek, via Marlene Dietrich Collection

“My test case was a still from ‘The Song of Songs,’ which was the first Hollywood movie she made without Sternberg,” Ms. Lemay said. “It’s probably the best lit photograph in the show — the play of shadow on her face is exquisite.”

There are pictures in both exhibitions of Dietrich contemplating herself in a full-length mirror, angled so that she could see her exact pose before being photographed. She also had all of her clothes (both men’s and women’s) custom-made, because of what Dietrich called “her unusual shape — broad shoulders, narrow hips.”

“It was always Dietrich who wore her outfits, rather than vice versa,” Mr. Passebon said. “Her outfits were always subservient to her, as her photographs bear witness.”

When Dietrich posed for a series of portraits for Vogue in 1948, Irving Penn tried to lay down the law, saying: “Now look: In this experience, you be Dietrich, and I’ll be the photographer.” You can almost see a scowl on Dietrich’s face as she poses for a picture in a shapeless black coat, looking over her shoulder toward the camera.

Dietrich in 1945.CreditDeutsche Kinemathek/Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin

Above all, Dietrich detested any hint of vulgarity — a criticism she leveled at her bête noire, Madonna. Among the 200 photographs in the MEP show, there are two of Dietrich wearing a plunging neckline, and the images, by George Hurrell, were never published.

“What’s interesting about Marlene is that she was the daughter of a Prussian soldier, and she was always impeccably turned out like a good soldier,” Mr. Passebon said.

But the actress was also a study in contrasts, Ms. Lemay notes. “She hit all the traditional milestones,” the curator said. “She got married around 21 years old, and she had a child. And yet there she was, being a complete pioneer with her bisexuality and with her choice to work as a woman and become the family’s breadwinner.”

Dietrich’s fixation with her image extended into old age, when she did everything in her power to avoid being photographed, so as not to tarnish her legacy. The MEP exhibition includes a picture of an elderly Dietrich wearing a black beret and sunglasses, striking the photographer Daniel Angeli for having the temerity to take her photograph uninvited.

“She always wanted to control every aspect of her life,” Mr. Passebon said. “Right up until the end.”

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