Dangerously Dietrich: The Original Femme Fatale

It’s no secret that we love Dietrich, so enjoy this in-depth glance at Marlene’s impact on the film noir mode in America as the original femme fatale.

Classical Hollywood film noir depicts a specific type of woman, one who is chained only to her selfish desires and autonomy. These characters, femme fatales, are defined as products of male anxiety due to women in the workplace and on the home-front during World War II which are exteriorized in Hollywood film noir narratives.

Ann Savage as Vera, the femme fatale in “Detour” (1945)

However, research preceding the film noir mode provides information regarding the rise of femme fatales in a discourse predating World War II to the postwar Weimar Republic in Germany. Films in the Weimar Republic often depict a “New Woman” representative of  male anxieties which arose in the early 1910s due to women’s liberation and later resurfaced in post-World War I cinematic features. Silent films occasionally portrayed this New Woman, but the first major “talkie” in Germany, Der Blaue Engel (von Sternberg, 1930), opened doors for a rising star, Marlene Dietrich, to hone and eventually iconize the characteristics of the New Woman—and later femme fatale—in a large majority of her filmography. Therefore, it is our belief that the femme fatale is a product of the Weimar Republic attributed to the actor-director partnership of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg

According to Barbara Hales, the rise of male anxiety occurred after “a period of social, political, and economic upheaval in Europe, as women rallied for equal rights” and a great debate piqued interest in the “true nature” of woman. A resurgence of this concern appeared in Weimar cinema through characters like Lulu of Pandora’s Box (Pabst, 1929) and Lola Lola of Der Blaue Engel. Classified as the New Woman, they “exercised unprecedented forms of social and sexual autonomy”, thereby posing a threat to masculinity because of their capability to function independently and use wiles to advance their personal interests (McCormick, 640-641). Louise Brooks’ performance as Lulu significantly influenced the delineation of Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola, however two key factors classify Dietrich above Brooks as transporter of the New Woman to Hollywood: the introduction of sound to film and the multilingual versions of Der Blaue Engel.

Louise Brooks as Lulu in “Pandora’s Box” (1929)

Der Blaue Engel was shot simultaneously in German and English; The Blue Angel (von Sternberg, 1930) arrived in Hollywood in the latter half of 1930. Universum Film AG (UFA) commissioned Josef von Sternberg from Paramount Pictures to direct his only German picture and he selected a relatively unknown actress, Marlene Dietrich, from their pool of performers. Von Sternberg marketed on Dietrich’s German accent as an immediate appeal of “otherness” to American audiences, which heightened her association to Weimar’s New Woman (Lawrence, 84).

Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, the main characters of “Der Blaue Engel” (1930)

Her “otherness” also coincided with the masculine threat of androgyny in a woman. Dietrich embodied androgyny due to von Sternberg’s construction of her acting style; she was “a refiguration of his masculine self in a feminine body” (Bronfen, 119). Louise Brooks’ Lulu lacked the presence of audio as Pandora’s Box was a silent production of Weimar Cinema, and her status as a Hollywood starlet imposed a feminine quality to the “conscripted Weimar New Woman” of “athletic androgyny”, thereby reducing her impact as a masculine threat to German and American audiences (McCarthy, 222).

In addition to Der Blaue Engel’s multilingual sway, many of the scenes were altered for  The Blue Angel to suit the introduction of censorship in American cinema. Marlene Dietrich’s iconic “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” musical number demonstrates the most notable difference in Weimar and Hollywood censorship. In The Blue Angel, the scene begins with Lola Lola sauntering around the stage, hands on hips, as she passively sings the song. After shooing another cabaret girl from atop a beer barrel, she flicks the tail of her costume behind her, sits down, and hugs her bare, bended knee.  The same instances occur in Der Blaue Engel, but the leg in which she embraces shows her inner-thigh, which according to Hollywood is a “sexually provocative version of the same song” (Petro, 143). By offering a diluted version of the New Woman to American audiences while still satisfying anxieties of the Weimar Republic, von Sternberg and Dietrich were able to make a swift transition overseas.

Dietrich hugs her least sexually provocative knee for American audiences in “The Blue Angel”

Before The Blue Angel’s release in the United States, Josef von Sternberg, a major Hollywood director at the time, encouraged Paramount Pictures to sign Marlene Dietrich to their company. American audiences were exposed to a harbinger androgynous character portrayed by Dietrich in Morocco (von Sternberg, 1930) before The Blue Angel skyrocketed her to Hollywood stardom one month later (Bronfen, 119-120). Von Sternberg’s cinematographic treatment of Dietrich and her image is a blatant precursor to the stylistic format of framing, lighting, and characterizing the femme fatale of film noir in years to come. A clear example of von Sternberg’s darker style is present in The Scarlet Empress (1934), a film illustrating the reign of Catherine the Great with Marlene Dietrich on the throne. He uses German Expressionist elements such as chiaroscuro lighting; overpowering props such as gargoyles and thick, wooden doors to externalize Catherine’s internal claustrophobia and anguish; and Catherine is aligned to the New Woman as the film progresses.

Before she becomes the femme fatale…

Film noir depicts its female characters in two forms: light and shadow. The women who “do not allow [themselves] to be dominated by the men who fall for her charms” are immersed in dark shadows while those who abide by society’s airtight gender structure have a warm glow of light accompanying their actions (Bronfen, 113). As Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) changes from the innocent daughter of a prince to the adulterous Catherine the Great, von Sternberg, too, changes his lighting techniques. As the film progresses, Catherine falls into the New Woman category as she uses her “seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself from the imprisonment of an unfulfilling marriage” (Bronfen, 106). Catherine falls into a rut of adultery and causes turmoil for the many men in her life, this is an omen for the future of femme fatales and their “[refusal] to be fixed” (Bronfen, 113). Von Sternberg’s  cinematographic techniques of representing women of agency undoubtedly paved the way for film noir directors to manifest the appearance of femme fatales.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s final film together, The Devil is a Woman (1935), primes Dietrich to sharpen her portrayal of the New Woman; set the stage for actresses to play femme fatale; and allow her to perform this specific acting style without von Sternberg’s direction. Concha Perez is perhaps the most dangerous female of Dietrich’s filmography due to the emotionless method in which Dietrich brings her to life. Compared to Lola Lola and Catherine the Great, Concha’s actions are coequal, however, Dietrich has gained the ability to not only confront the characters within in the narrative, but acknowledge the audience’s voyeurism, as well. In Carole Zucker’s essay Some Observations on Sternberg and Dietrich, she states, “[The audience], like her lovers, may be fooled by the profane part of her act, but eventually [the audience] comprehend[s] her spirit as incorruptible and strong” (20). Practically every action present in The Devil is a Woman exemplifies the profane yet incorruptible qualities of Dietrich by means of Concha.

Dietrich as Concha Perez in “The Devil is a Woman” (1935)

Von Sternberg’s directing in The Devil is a Woman is classical Hollywood style cinematography and editing. He positions his focus on directing Dietrich rather than using lighting techniques to convey distinct characteristics of the New Woman and stresses the importance of objects and actions within the scene. The majority of the film takes place within Don Pasquale’s (Lionel Atwill) flashbacks and past encounters with Concha Perez as he explains to her current suitor Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) how she continually broke his heart. In the course of one flashback, Pasquale greets Concha in her dressing room, “Oh, I forgot to thank you for the flowers,” Concha announces dispassionately as she ignores Pasquale—he then professes his love for her. She rejects his comment and avoids eye contact by gazing in the mirror with, yet another, careless response, “One moment and I’ll give you a kiss”. Von Sternberg captures a close-up of Dietrich with a kittenish smile as her eyes beg for mercy. Thomas Elsaesser calls this the “ironic and gratified smile” in which Dietrich uses to “[evoke] pleasure (and a measure of self-deprecation) in the immense and absurd labor involved in displaying her image, her effortless entrance, presence, performance” (124).

Barbara Kosta classifies Marlene Dietrich’s behavior in The Devil is a Woman as “more stylized and self-conscious in the performance on an insatiable desire to be desired, and thus more deliberate in performing (in this case) for the male gaze and in affecting her male suitor’s demise” (53). These techniques transferred to femme fatales such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) as she unemotionally assists in killing her husband by using her sensuality to lure Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into a trap. Stanwyck employs the self-consciousness and stylized performance Dietrich introduced to the reading of New Woman or femme fatale characters. After all, Phyllis’s last name cannot be spelled without “Dietrich”.

One of our favourite femme fatales, Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck

The multilingual versions of Der Blaue Engel formed a gateway for Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich to shift Weimar cinema’s New Woman to Hollywood with relative ease. As they continued to produce film after film in Hollywood with this particular female character, both Von Sternberg and Dietrich honed an exact formula of phenomenal directorial techniques and calculated methodology in acting in order to introduce a strategy of character depiction. Due to von Sternberg’s proverbial creation of Dietrich’s style, she was able to carry the style outside of films they produced together and eventually influence the film noir mode. Therefore, Marlene Dietrich’s New Woman should be retrospectively acknowledged as the origin of the femme fatale.

Works Cited

Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire”. New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, Rethinking Tragedy, pp. 103-116. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. Print.

—. “Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in “The Blue Angel”.” New German Critique, No. 89, Film and Exile, pp. 9-31. Print.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “‘Lili Marleen’: Fascism and the Film Industry”. October, Vol. 21, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, pp. 115-140. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1982. Print.

Hales, Barbara. “Woman as Sexual Criminal: Weimar Constructions of the Criminal Femme Fatale.” Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 12. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Print.

Kosta, Barbara. Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich, and Mass Culture. New York: Berghahn Books. 2009. Print.

Lawrence, Amy. “Marlene Dietrich: The Voice as Mask”, pp. 79-99. Dietrich Icon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

McCarthy, Margaret. “Surface Sheen and Charged Bodies: Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box”, pp. 217-236. Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

McCormick, Richard W. “From “Caligari” to Dietrich: Sexual, Social, and Cinematic Discourses in Weimar Film.” Signs, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 640-668. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Film Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Petro, Patrice. “The Blue Angel in Multiple-Language Versions: The Inner Thighs of Miss Dietrich”, pp. 141-161. Dietrich Icon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Zucker, Carole. “Some Observations on Sternberg and Dietrich” Cinema Journal , Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 17-24. Austin: University of Texas Press. Print.

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