Ethics Hero Emeritus: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

The great Marlene Dietrich, Ethics Hero

It was on this date in 1992 that the magnificent Marlene Dietrich died, in her sleep, in her Paris apartment at age of 91. She had hidden her face from the world since she had stopped performing over a decade before, saying that the public should remember her as she had been. Sadly, Dietrich is one of those former icons of Hollywood whom the public is slowly failing to remember anything about at all; most are more familiar with Madeleine Kahn’s send-up of her in the Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” than they are with Marlene herself. That is wrong, for she deserves better. Not only was Marlene Dietrich a unique performer and important cultural figure, she was also an Ethics Hero.

She was a rising German stage and screen actress when director Josef von Sternberg cast her as Lola-Lola, the beautiful, cynical leading character in “Der blaue Engel,” (The Blue Angel), Germany’s first talking film. The movie made Dietrich a star. Von Sternberg took her with him when Hollywood beckoned and signed her with Paramount Pictures. There Dietrich built her image and legend by perfecting her femme fatale film persona in a series of classic films directed by her mentor: “Morocco” (1930), “Dishonored” (1931), “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), and “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935).

Meanwhile, she had already begun fighting Hitler’s regime. When the Nazis began persecuting Jews, she financed the escape of many Jewish friends from Germany. In 1937, Hitler, through emissaries, offered Dietrich wealth, privileged status and artistic freedom if she would return to Germany and make films there. She refused, and announced to journalists, “Hitler is an idiot.” In return, the Nazis revoked her citizenship, declared her a traitor and banned her films.

Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939. She also became a vigorous and vocal opponent of Nazi Germany, and an especially credible one because of her German heritage. When the United States entered World War II,  Dietrich emerged as an acting, singing symbol of free Germany. The Allies asked her to make anti-Nazi radio broadcasts in German and she eagerly agreed, singing popular American songs and sending propaganda messages over the airwaves from London to Germany, where she was still popular. The Germans turned off most Allied broadcasts, but many couldn’t resist their Marlene, and stayed tuned to hear the star sing “Lili Marlene” and “Falling in Love Again.” (Mel Brooks gives a sly salute to Dietrich’s propaganda efforts in “Blazing Saddles,” showing the Dietrich-like “Lilli Von Schtupp” helping the oppressed western town of Rock Ridge defeat the evil allies of “Hedley Lamar” as she takes the Nazi soldier contingent of Lamar’s army out of the decisive battle by distracting them with popular songs.)

Dietrich was active in war-bond drives and singing in French, German and English, she entertained an estimated half-million Allied troops and war prisoners across North Africa and Western Europe. A lover of camping (apparently the spark for an unlikely affair with John Wayne–they also played chess together and discussed literature) she distinguished herself by gamely roughing it with the soldiers, waiting in food lines, washing with snow, and sleeping on the ground, in the rain, within ruins, and dangerously close to the battle front.

Her tireless wartime exploits were widely recognized and respected. After the war, the United States Government awarded Marlene its highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, France named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and Belgium dubbed her a Knight of the Order of Leopold.

In her later years, Marlene Dietrich toured the world as a concert singer, her stage appearance almost indistinguishable from the way she looked as a screen siren in the 30’s and 40’s. She sang the famous songs from her movies in whatever language the audience understood, her performances always soaked through with memories and passion.

I was fortunate enough to see one of her very last concerts, and surprised that her final number was not one of her signature songs, but the Pete Seeger classic, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” Yet as she sang it, motionless, the lyrics took on somberness and power that they had never had for me before. Here was a woman whose beloved homeland she had left and seen scarred and demolished because of war, and whose life had been profoundly changed by human suffering that, as a performer, she had tried to soothe, expressing anger and sadness that nothing could stop the cycle of death.  I have never heard the song the same way since. You can see a video of her singing it here.

Marlene Dietrich had the misfortune of never making a color film that became an enduring classic, though many of her black-and-white movies—“The Blue Angel,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Witness for the Prosecution, ” and “Touch of Evil” deserve that status. As a result, younger generations neither know her film work nor understand the appeal of her singing, which was as eccentric as it was powerful. (Ernest Hemingway once said that “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it.”)

That is their loss. She was a figure of historical and social importance (Marlene Dietrich managed to be sexy and androgynous at the same time, and was a true proto-feminist) as well as a great talent. It is unlikely that we will ever see anyone like her again. She was also a woman of courage and conviction, and an Ethics Hero.

5 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

  1. Wow! You must be an old guy to come up with this–first Lena Horne, now Dietrich. I loved Lili Marlene–it must have made many German soldiers homesick. But I never knew about Dietrich’s politics. Thanks for the education.

  2. Thanks so much!!! She was one of my favorite singers and I just realized the only record I have of her is scratched. Just ordered 2 CD’s from Amazon. Favorite movie was: Golden Earrings

  3. Thanks for doing this. And you ought to do more of this type of thing. There are “ethics heroes” out there about whom no one knows… (partially because of ignorance and partially because formal history lessons teach so little).

    In college I was an English major, but soon afterward became my own student of history, with particular interest in World War II and the Holocaust. The only thing I would add to your extraordinary piece on Dietrich is this, the summary of which I found on Wikipedia:

    “During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops on the front lines in Algeria, Italy, England and France, and went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand” — “OUT OF DECENCY.”

    Now there’s a real “Ethics Hero.”

    PS The only other thing you left out was the fact that in addition to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the US in 1947 (which she said was her proudest achievement), she also received the “Legion d’Honneur” by the French government. Considering the French and THEIR role in World War II, it is not surprising that there isn’t a quote anywhere on her feelings upon receiving that particular honor…

  4. I am watching Judgment at Nuremberg. I have been aware or Miss Dietrich’s heroic virtue for some time but watching this with that fact in mind. aware of the gravity of her unwavering stance it to me monumental. I came on line searching the term; “Marlene Dietrich was hero” and found this so I am adding my Amen. as I feel she eminently exemplifies heroic virtue in her virtuous support of ethics.

    She acted in the most public forum available to anyone as a German in this this Film in particular portraying a German who did not walk the difficult path Marlene walked herself.. It must have been a tremendously difficult thing for anyone .. I applauder her even now ..

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