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Leading lives: Marlene Dietrich

“TODAY filmmakers know all about camera placement and visual angles. But TV cameras often distort contours much to the astonishment of bewildered viewers who wonder why an actress’s face appears broad on one day and narrow on another.”

The speaker continues: “You should hold the camera high, slightly above the eye level of those you want to photograph. If you hold the camera lower, about the subject’s belly-button level, say, the face appears round and thick and bears no resemblance to what you actually wanted to photograph.”

Still continuing: “But back to studio lighting. The back light is the big bugaboo. If a performer near it is speaking to her partner, she is told not to turn completely away from it. If she does, the back light will give her a bulbous nose…. A side light can also play little tricks—but it is not quite so risky…. The key light, directly behind the camera, is the most important of all. The higher this key light is placed, the longer and narrower the face will appear on the screen. If an actress happens to be blessed with high cheekbones, such lighting sketches attractive, soft shadows on both cheeks.”

Then, she says with finality: “Since at the present time, there are no great film beauties [ca. 1980s, annotation mine] as in the past, this knowledge is not all too important [underscoring mine].”

Who is speaking?

Let us continue: “In my case the face was created.”

If your guess is Marlene Dietrich, you are correct.

The legendary (the modifier is justified, this time) actress is speaking from her autobiography, Marlene by Marlene Dietrich (first published in 1989). This is the actress who made sexual ambiguity a glamor brand, the German import who came to Hollywood with all the allure and mystery of one who was obscure and obscured, a creature by her own admission of a director, Josef von Sternberg, who taught her how to act and how to dress and, most of all, how to use the light and the camera.

In many passages of the book, Marlene would devote her discourse on the power of light and editing. While fans expect that she be discussing about makeup and how to chew a scene, readers and good fans will be assured of this screen personality keen about the working of the technologies of cinema.

But, yes, she talks about her face—that face: “The most outlandish stories have made the rounds: that I had to have my molars extracted so as to highlight my hollow cheeks, that young girls could suck in their cheeks to achieve the secret effect to be seen on the screen.” She reveals the truth: “None of these tales is true. Nor are those that claim that in the shooting of Morocco I ran through the desert on high-heeled shoes.”

So, it was all light: “In this film [The Blue Angel] von Sternberg used the main spotlight to give greater prominence to the roundness of my face. No hollow cheeks in The Blue Angel.

Everybody knows of course that film and that scene, where a white-skinned, sultry girl, poses with her one leg close to the camera hoisted up, her thigh showing, daring in those years, in a pose that would grace the performances of impersonators and even be recalled by Liza Minnelli in the KitKat Club of Bob Fosse’s film, Cabaret.

The whole thing was sin as imagined by a German Dante Alighieri, but Marlene would tell us she was not the lead in The Blue Angel.

Other than honoring the backlight, the autobiography of Marlene pays homage to von Sternberg who is quoted as saying, “I then put her into the crucible of my conception, blended her image to correspond with mine, pouring lights on her until the alchemy was complete.”

But here is always what happens in an autobiography—or biography, for that matter: Other people’s lives are revealed at the same time as the confession of the autobiographer or the writing of biographer takes place.

Whose lives are compromised? Whose secrets are disclosed? Marlene’s words about actors are writers are gems of caustic brilliance.

Of her friend, Edith Piaf, Marlene recalls: “Horrified, I looked on as she exhausted her energies and took on three lovers at once…. In my eyes, she really was The Sparrow, the little bird whose name she bore. But she was also Jezebel, whose unquenchable thirst for love must have been due to a feeling of imperfection, her ‘ugliness,’ as she put it…. She liked me, perhaps she loved me. But I believe she could only love men…. Very much later, when she became a drug addict, I broke faith with her…. I gave Edith Piaf up like a lost daughter whom you forever mourn.”

The passionate words, Marlene reserved to the men she “loved.” There is Orson Welles: “He will always remain the wunderkind of film…. I feel his absence, the absence of his friendship, of the strength he gave me, as a painful loss. I try in vain to reach him in my helpless dreams.”

What saves the personal rhapsody from froth is in the fact that in the long paragraphs devoted to Welles, Marlene would speak in detail about the technological contribution of the filmmaker, how Orson Welles “revolutionized photography by his use of the frog perspective, a perspective Eisenstein had used in his outdoor shots….” How the filmmaker was the first to use the hand camera with a swivel device.

A long section is devoted to Ernest Hemingway: “I have never stopped loving him…. I say this because the love that Ernest Hemingway and I felt for each other—pure, absolute—was a most extraordinary love in the world in which we lived.”

Of her many loves, Marlene is Lola, the vamp, once more: “Thus, I’ve met many wonderful men like ships that pass in the night. But I believe that their love would have been more constant had I dropped anchor in their port.”

Her role as an entertainer at the World War II front occupies another chapter. In these memories, Marlene is critical, human: “I’ve seen these men during battle and afterward. Long after the war, I saw them again—in their homes, hobbling around on their crutches, or seated, legless…. I’ve seen them all. I’ve loved them all, long after the world forgot them.”

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