Director: Maximilian Schell
Futura Film, Munich
Marlene opens on a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Marlene Dietrich repeatedly thwarted director Maximilian Schell’s attempts to make documentary about her. After much prodding from her Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) co -star, Ms. Dietrich finally acquiesces. The caveats are: 1) she will only allow Schell to record her voice: and 2) she won’t allow cameras in her apartment. Resigned to make the film, Schell films the tape recorder. It’s an unusual solution.
As the tape recorder begins to spin, Ms. Dietrich’s voice is heard indicting Schell: “Do you think I’d go and sit in some sad, stuffy old cinema and watch an old film?” Dietrich makes it clear early and often she doesn’t share her fan’s enthusiasm for film history. She never watches her films. They don’t interest her. As with many of the statements aimed directly at Schell, she makes it clear with claws out. She does not appreciate sentimentality and doesn’t play nice to be a good sport. Schell includes several audio clips of her bored defiance in the opening segment as the camera pans back slowly from the recorder. Covered is a range of topics Ms. Dietrich is going to discourage and scold Schell over. She answers questions with the venom and confidence of someone beating a congressional grilling.
The first shot eventually cuts to Mrs. Dietrich talking to the crowd at her final concert appearance. Here she is more humble, exemplifying the grace you would expect her to have as she leaves the stage for a final time. After a few more clips, the film cuts to her in a scene in the western Destiny Rides Again (1939). Here she’s swinging a gun around a saloon threatening Jimmy Stewart. The whole saloon has to hit the deck as she waves the gun around. This is a glimpse of the fun and anarchy prevalent in a typical Dietrich performance. As the film continues, we see many clips of her films. But if Schell is enjoying anything too much, she’ll shut it down with statements like “We (Germans) didn’t have kitsch. We didn’t have sentimental feelings.” And so they dance, Dietrich refusing for her or her apartment to be filmed for the documentary and Schell trying to appease her as best he can. Schell builds a set resembling her apartment, hires doubles of varying ages, and follows his staff around to use as second unit footage. There are also talking heads interviews with the few people close to her.
Dietrich opens up occasionally: not in a sentimental way, but more as if annoyed at Schell for being such a fool for being interested. She doesn’t seem to care about setting the record straight regarding the “fifty-five books” about her. She tells the story of the audition for what would inform her iconic performance of “Falling in Love Again” in her breakout film The Blue Angel (1930). Of course by her account, the books have it all wrong. It may sound like a documentary falling apart at the seams, but Schell works with what he has and Dietrich seems to occasionally let go of her inhibitions long enough to tell a story.
If the film sounds like little more than a grumpy rant by a Hollywood Icon, her rapport with Schell and inclination to give praise where praise is due creates occasional warmth driving the film forward. It becomes apparent some of her defensiveness has to do with her not wanting to appear to be pining for another time. You can’t help but root for Schell as he dissects statements she makes when she refuses to answer his questions directly. Throughout the film, Schell tries to sell her on commenting directly on her films, but she will not allow herself to be filmed or watch any of her old films. “I’ve been photographed enough” is her mantra. After, much pushing, she’s convinced to have a video brought to her house to watch one movie and one movie only: The Scarlet Empress (1934). She insists they fast-forward to the end. The screening instigates a fight with Schell that leads her to denigrate his existence by calling him an “old film buff”.
Schell creates an anger montage using clips from her films and look-alikes destroying the set while the audio plays out her excessive beratement of Schell. The anger montage is an interesting piece of film exposing the artistic frustration. Has Schell gone mad? Or has he accurately articulated artistic frustration. Before the argument, Schell explains under his breath how her agent slipped him a note with a quote from Dante Alighieri: “There is no greater pain than the recollection of past happiness in times of misery.” The segment is a poignant wrap up towards the end of a challenging documentary and shines a vulnerable light on the aging star. Werner Herzog once said “There is never an excuse not to finish a film.” Schell’s Marlene is a glistening example of this advice. Schell created an excellent film and unwittingly captured a rare portrait of an enigmatic icon. (Billups Allen)