The Elusive Enchantment: Dietrich x Sternberg

Donning a top hat, slipping into a tailcoat; through the haze of cigarette smoke, she sings in an alluring voice with cold disdain. Here on stage is the seductive androgynous goddess – Marlene Dietrich (1901-92), who evokes desire for admiration, and incites all to delve into the secret behind her callous egotism.

Dietrich’s coolly transformative mystique and Austrian master Josef von Sternberg’s (1894- 1969) visionary erotic aesthetics form one of the most legendary partnerships in film history, indulging audiences in the interplay of manipulation and masochism, in which men fall one after another for her like moths to a flame. Mesmerizing the world with her sultry songs in The Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco (1930), her lustrous vitality was a perfect match for the provocative roles Sternberg created for her, be it an enticing chanteuse in Blonde Venus (1932), a patriotic spy in Dishonored (1931), a femme fatale in The Devil is a Woman (1935) and the hedonistic Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress (1934) – to each character she brings a fresh charisma, inducing charm as much as villainy, sympathy and scandal.

“Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of Sternberg’s American movies with Dietrich,” Susan Sontag’s accolade encapsulated the six films of their collaboration during precode Hollywood, just at the dawn of the Hays Code. Bringing European sensibility and a style so expressionistic to American screens, the lyrical filmmaker heightened his muse’s allure with chiaroscuro lighting, extravagant costumes and dazzling decors, conjuring dream visions of exotic settings from Morocco to Shanghai and even Imperial Russia. These romantic fantasies construed a delirious world of passions that overcomes strict realism and becomes landmarks of the cinematic art.

“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she says in Shanghai Express (1932). But it only took Sternberg alone to transform Marlene Dietrich into a myth – and all of us into prisoners of their grandiose illusions.