In most of her films, Marlene Dietrich is portrayed as the bad woman, the temptress, the murderess, and is often associated with the outsiders of the film. Her German nationality almost always plays a role in her untrustworthiness in her popular films. She is often portrayed as an outsider and is not trusted by audiences and characters as a result of her characters’ loose sexual morals. Whenever there is a clear binary of good and bad in her films, her sexuality draws the attention of the enemy which puts the hero at risk. Besides morals, film techniques also place black wool over Dietrich’s star. These techniques are costumes and lighting.
In her breakout role in Shanghai Express (1932), Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, a high-class prostitute whose reputation is known among all who tour or reside in China. The devaluing of Lily through the sneers of the passengers on the train is a reaction to their fear of her sexuality. Their judgments of Lily are manifested in her costumes. The passengers’ fears literally dress Lily. They make Lily what they want her to be.
Lily’s wardrobe is composed of slimming black dresses, boas, furs, veils, and extravagant jewellery. Her black, feathered wardrobe contradicts the white, pure image the name “Lily” conjures. To create the “rarest black bird imaginable,” Dietrich was not thinking of the character, but naturally, herself and her weight (Riva, 119). To make herself appear thinner and create an exotic Lily, Dietrich is recorded to have said, “Black – what breaks black on black?…Jo says everything oriental – like opium-den feeling. So…maybe, she should be…different…like some rare, strange bird…feathers?…Black feathers!” (Riva, 115-116). As the rare, strange, black bird Dietrich created, Lily ironically calls herself the “notorious white flower of China.” Her costumes, especially the one she begins and ends the film in (pictured above), represents her ostracised position in both Western and Chinese societies. Fears of Lily clothe her and the passengers also quite literally view her in a darker light.
The passengers’ opinion of Shanghai Lily is visually seen through the lighting of the film. Lily’s development as a character is also tracked by lighting throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, Lily is hidden in veils and shadows. A full view of her is symbolically obstructed by doors, curtains, and window frames. The fear of her sexual power and its potential to draw enemies coerces her into the shadows.
Later on in the film, Lily considers the consequences her actions will have upon Doc, and she prays about her decision and for Doc’s safety. During her first prayer, her head is in complete darkness while her clasped hands are in the light. Although her heart and mind are hardened towards God, it is seen she is starting to soften by her clasped hands being in the light.
The second time she prays in these famous prayer sequences, her face is in the light, emerged from the shadows that cover her neck. Her arms and hands are in the light, too, as tears glisten down her face. She repents, is redeemed, and she is still rebuked by the passengers. After the climactic events in the film, Lily’s face is in the light and darkness surrounds her – the lighting is now reversed from what it was.
The passengers’ blindness to Lily’s sacrifice for Doc is symbolised in the darkness that surrounds Lily as she stands alone yet again, but this time in the light.
Marlene Dietrich is known for playing the bad woman, the temptress, and the murderess not because her characters are that way, but because Hollywood and audiences of the time pinned their fears onto her characters. Shanghai Lily isn’t the only character to receive this sort of treatment through costuming and lighting, Frenchy from Destry Rides Again (1939) and Erika Von Schluetow in A Foreign Affair (1948) among others can be applied to these film techniques. Seeing how Dietrich’s characters are portrayed through costumes and lighting add depth to her characters and make watching her films more entertaining and intellectually stimulating.