Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born in Schoeneberg on December 27, 1901, the daughter of Wilhelmina and Louis Dietrich. Her father was a police officer
, and her mother the daughter of a jeweller
. Marie was the younger of two daughters, her sister Elisabeth being a year older. In 1907, her father died, and Wilhelmina later remarried, to Eduard von Losch, but he died during WWI from wounds received.
By the end of the great war Marie was already known as "Marlene". For a while she studied violin in Weimar
, but instead of completing her studies, she enrolled at the Max Reinhardt School at the beginning of the 20's.
Her stage career started in 1922 with a supporting role
in Der grosse Bariton (The Great Lover)
at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm and she was also cast in Die Buechse der Pandora
) and The Taming of the Shrew
. In the same year she landed roles in two silent movies
, So sind die Maenner
(That´s How Men Are) and Tragoedie der Liebe
(Tragedy of Love).
On May 17, 1923, she married Rudolf Sieber, and in the following December her daughter Maria was born. It was an unconventional
marriage with the couple living almost completely separate lives and conducting multiple affairs. What's more, Marlene was openly bisexual
-- her lovers included Claudette Colbert and Mercedes de Acosta -- in a period where homosexuality was barely acknowledged
, let alone accepted. Even so, she and Sieber remained on good terms throughout their lives, and never divorced.
Marlene gained popularity particularly after playing leading roles in the stage comedy Duell am Lido (Duel on the Lido)
and in the revue Von Mund zu Mund
(From Mouth to Mouth), In 1927, She started working outside Germany -- in 1927 she played the Theater in der Josefstadt and the Wiener Kammerspiele in Vienna
, and while there she made her most significant film up to this point, Café Elektric
. When she had completed this project she returned home to Germany to star in several more films: Ich kuesse Ihre Hand Madame
(I Kiss Your Hand, Madame), Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt
(The Woman You Long For), Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen
(The Ship of Lost Souls) and Gefahren der Brautzeit
(The Dangers of Being Betrothed).
Marlene was still doing stage work, starring in Mischa Spoliansky´s revue Es liegt in der Luft
(It´s in the Air) in 1928, and her first two recorded songs came from this show. A year later she starred in Georg Kaiser's Zwei Krawatten
Then, in August of 1929, director Josef von Sternberg came to Germany from Hollywood
to make a movie based on Heinrich Mann´s novel "Professor Unrat". The female lead was not yet cast, and when Sternberg saw Marlene in Zwei Krawatten
, he was impressed enough to offer her the role.
The Blue Angel
, which began shooting in November 1929 was one of the earliest sound films made in Germany, and Dietrich was a sensation in the role of nightclub singer Lola Lola
. The movie is still a classic
, and it launched Marlene's world career; Paramount -- and von Sternberg -- wanted her in Hollywood, and Dietrich was more than happy to go.
In April of 1930, Marlene arrived in New York, and her arrival in Hollywood was publicised with a trailer made by von Sternberg to introduce her to the American public
. For the next four years Dietrich worked almost exclusively with von Sternberg, making six important films with him -- Morocco
, Shanghai Express
, The Scarlet Empress
and The Devil is a Woman
. Over the course of these she developed the archetypal "Dietrich character" -- an independent femme fatale with a haunted, and haunting, past. During this period she made only one film with another director -- Song of Songs
, with Rouben Mamoulian directing. Marlene was also received several offers of work in Germany from Goebbels, but she was adamant in opposition of Nazi
party policies, and refused.
In 1936 Dietrich made her first American comedy
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, playing a jewel thief opposite Gary Cooper. It was a success, and proved that Marlene was more than a "creation" of Von Sternberg.
The Garden of Allah
, in 1936 was her first colour film, a kitsch
confection which made no demands on her acting ability. She followed this with Knight without Armour
, made in England in 1937. Back in Hollywood, she starred in Ernst Lubitsch´s Angel
-- a brilliant performance, but the film was unsuccessful, leading to Marlene being listed with several actresses such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn as "Box-Office Poison": in the May 1938 edition of the Hollywood Reporter
However, in 1939 Marlene disproved the title when she starred with James Stewart in Destry Rides Again
, a completely different role to any she'd played before, in an upbeat western
. It was hugely successful, and is probably Dietrich's best known role. In the same year she became a US citizen (shaving three years off her age) and was branded a "traitor
" back home in Germany.
Over the next three years she made six films: Seven Sinners
in 1940, The Flame of New Orleans
, and Manpower
in 1941, and The Lady is Willing
, The Spoilers
, and Pittsburgh
in 1942. They weren't great art
, but they kept her working.
Dietrich, as an anti-Nazi, felt very uncomfortable about her German roots in the shadow of Hitler
and his actions. She worked actively with the USO during WWII in North Africa, Italy and other war zones, entertaining American troops, often at risk of her own life. She did hospital
work and radio broadcasts, and irritatingly for the Germans authorities, made the bawdy German standard Lili Marlene
her personal signature tune. At the end of the war she was awarded medals for bravery by the U.S., French and Israeli governments.
In 1946, Marlene co-starred with Jean Gabin, in a French movie Martin Roumagnac
, which bombed completely. Even so, Gabin became the man she described as "the love of my life" so it wasn't a dead loss
for her, and in 1948 Dietrich's daughter Maria gave birth to the fist of four sons making Marlene "the world´s most glamorous grandmother
Between 1947 and 1951 she made Golden Earrings
, A Foreign Affair
, and then travelled to England to make Stage Fright
(with Alfred Hitchcock
) and No Highway in the Sky
. Billy Wilder had to talk fast and hard to get the committed anti-Nazi to play a Nazi singer in A Foreign Affair
, but it was one of Marlene's most successful roles.
In November of 1951, back in the States, she recorded her first album for Columbia in New York. The album was called "Marlene Dietrich Overseas" and contained 12 songs, all sung in German. This album is still regarded by many critics
as Dietrich's best.
Her next movie, Rancho Notorious
, in 1952 was -- as she described it -- "a very bad film". In her 50's, she found it difficult to maintain an image as a screen goddess
and she decided to return to the stage, but in a very different way to her early performances. Rather than an actress
, she set herself up as an pure entertainer
, carrying her own shows.
In December of 1953, Marlene opened at the Hotel Sahara in Las Vegas
, to resounding success and in June of 1954, she was introduced by her old friend Sir Noel Coward at London's
legendary Café de Paris. Her deep, smoky voice -- and her incredible wardrobe
-- made headlines
all over the world.
She was still making movies -- a cameo
(along with most of Hollywood) in Around the World in 80 Days
in 1956, the starring role
in The Monte Carlo Story
, A cigar smoking brothel-keeper, one of her favourite roles, in Orson Welles
' film noir Touch of Evil
, and one of her strongest character performances ever in Billy Wilder's 1957 courtroom thriller Witness for the Prosecution
In 1959, Dietrich played series of concerts in South America
where 25000 people were waiting for her at Rio de Janeiro
airport. From there she went to an equally successful run at the Theatre de l´Etoile in Paris
and in 1960, she finally risked returning to Germany for a series of concerts. While many Germans still saw her as a traitor she overcame resistance
to her perfoming, and took 62 curtain calls in Munich
. Her stage appearances were wild successes all over the world.
In 1961, Dietrich played her last great role on film in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg
as the widow of a German general. In the following year she narrated a documentary called The Black Fox
and after that she made a small cameo appearance in Paris When It Sizzles
in 1964. Marlene then retired from movies completely doing no film work at all, with the exception of one final appearance in Just a Gigolo
with David Bowie
, fourteen years later in 1978.
now was on her stage shows, which evolved throughout the 60's into something more serious, as she sent out an increasingly anti-war message, adopting the songs of the new folk singers like Bob Dylan
and Pete Seeger
She toured worldwide until 1975, and in 1972 made a TV special called Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love
. Enthusiasm for her performances never waned and she was still receiving standing ovation
s in Japan in 1974.
However, in September of 1975, at the age of 74, Dietrich broke a leg on stage in Sydney
, Australia, bringing her stage career to an end. In 1976 her husband, Rudolf Sieber, died, and after filming Just a Gigolo
in 1978, Marlene retired completely from public view, living quietly in Paris. She refused to be photographed, not so much from vanity
as to preserve her myth
. In 1982, Maximilian Schell
interviewed Marlene, recording 18 hours of tape which he used to make the internationally successful documentary, Marlene: A Feature
in 1984, a fascinating account of the Dietrich legend
. One of his questions was why she would no longer be photographed. Marlene replied simply, "Because I don't want it! Tempi passati! - I've been photographed to death"
. Given a public career spanning more than 55 years, a fair comment.
Marlene Dietrich died in her flat in Paris on May 6, 1992, at the age of 91.