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Few movie stars have meant as many things to as many different audiences as the iconic Marlene Dietrich. The actress-chanteuse had a career of some seventy years: one that included not only classical Hollywood cinema and the concert hall but also silent film in Weimar Germany, theater, musical comedy, vaudeville, army camp shows, radio, recordings, television, and even the circus. Having renounced and left Nazi Germany, assumed American citizenship, and entertained American troops, Dietrich has long been a flashpoint in Germany’s struggles over its cultural heritage. She has also figured prominently in European and American film scholarship, in studies ranging from analyses of the directors with whom she worked to theories about the ideological and psychic functions of film. Dietrich Icon, which includes essays by established and emerging film scholars, is a unique examination of the many meanings of Dietrich.

Some of the essays in this collection revisit such familiar topics as Germany’s complex relationship with Dietrich, her ambiguous sexuality, her place in the lesbian archive, her star status, and her legendary legs, but with fresh critical perspective and an emphasis on historical background. Other essays establish new avenues for understanding Dietrich’s persona. Among these are a reading of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC—an eclectic autobiographical compendium containing Dietrich’s thoughts on such diverse subjects as “steak,” “Sternberg (Joseph von),” “Stravinsky,” and “stupidity”—and an argument that Dietrich manipulated her voice—through her accent, sexual innuendo, and singing—as much as her visual image in order to convey a cosmopolitan world-weariness. Still other essays consider the specter of aging that loomed over Dietrich’s career, as well as the many imitations of the Dietrich persona that have emerged since the star’s death in 1992.

Contributors. Nora M. Alter, Steven Bach, Elisabeth Bronfen, Erica Carter, Mary R. Desjardins, Joseph Garncarz, Gerd Gemünden, Mary Beth Haralovich, Amelie Hastie, Lutz Koepnick, Alice A. Kuzniar, Amy Lawrence, Judith Mayne, Patrice Petro, Eric Rentschler, Gaylyn Studlar, Werner Sudendorf, Mark Williams

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Yes, it is academic in the best sense of the word: you can learn a lot but you may also enjoy the design, the wonderful photos, the careful editing.” - Dietrich Newsletter

“[T]he editors provide an extensive summary of the many publications that have explored Dietrich’s performances from ideological, formal, and, above all, psychoanalytic perspectives.” - Caroline Weber, BookForum

“[T]he genius of the book is its inquiry into the iconic Dietrich herself. . . . [A]high standard of well-written scholarship wrapped in a beautifully produced book graced by a trove of artfully reproduced images. . . . The editors’ lucid 22-page intro draws in both scholar and fan. Highly recommended.” - T. Cripps, Choice

“[T]here is much to admire in this volume. This is an excellent book to be used in the classroom as well as a resource for any Dietrich aficionado.” - Irene Javors, Screening the Past

“As the product of a German studies professor and a film-studies professor respectively, Dietrich Icon is unique in its appeal to a wide scholarly audience. Even more surprising is its approachability to the casual reader who knows little, if anything, about Dietrich. . . . [T]he incredible details of its memoirs . . . and precise critical analysis allow the reader a penetrative rather than descriptive look at Dietrich. Dietrich Icon has something to offer everyone, from literary, film, and queer theorists to cultural studies and history scholars, with something for the unfamiliar reader to boot.” - Lauren Indvik, The Dartmouth Review

Dietrich Icon. . . successfully bridges the gap between academic publishing and writing that can appeal to general readership. . . . The book not only has an alluring design, but the paperback edition is also reasonably priced. . . . Dietrich Icon rises above the fray and encompasses successfully the aesthetic, cultural, and sexual diversity of Marlene Dietrich. To put it simply, the book is indispensable for anybody wanting to know more about the icon Dietrich.” - Ulrich Bach, German Studies Review

“Gerd Gemünden and Mary R. Desjardins convincingly suggest, and the essays together prove, that Dietrich is a figure who is interesting not just in herself but also as a prism reflecting discourses on aging, stardom, feminism, film theory, authorship, authenticity, performance, and masquerade, as well as audience projections ranging from Third Reich condemnation to lesbian cult fandom.”—Pamela Robertson Wojcik, author of Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna

“Most works on actresses are largely biographical in nature, with some critical evaluation of particular films and stage appearances thrown into the mix. This anthology by Gerd Gemünden and Mary R. Desjardins, however, presents serious historical and theoretical work on Dietrich’s star image and career—all expressed in clear and readable language, devoid of ‘jargon.’”—Lucy Fischer, author of Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822338192
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.15 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Gerd Gemünden is the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Framed Visions: Popular Culture, Americanization, and the Contemporary German and Austrian Imagination and coeditor of The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition.

Mary R. Desjardins is Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at Dartmouth College.

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Read an Excerpt

Dietrich Icon

Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3819-2

Chapter One

Dietrich's Face

In 1934, a Film Pictorial article entitled "Composite Beauty-Hollywood Standard" surveyed the bodies and physiognomies of several leading female film stars in order to compile an image of physical perfection. Norma Shearer ranked first in the category of hair, Loretta Young was seen as having the most desirable eyes, and Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert surpassed the looks of all other film stars when it came to the shape of noses and mouths. No other star, however, had as many perfect body parts to offer than Marlene Dietrich, the highest grossing screen actress of the time. After Paramount had marketed Dietrich two years earlier as "the women all women want to see" (John Baxter 75), the Film Pictorial essay now instructed the fans exactly what to look at when admiring their star on screen. Dietrich featured with no less than four body parts in the essay's normative vision of female beauty, three of them located in her body's lower regions and all of them, in Dietrich's early Hollywood films, often involved in a calculated aesthetic of display and concealment: her hands, legs, ankles, and feet.

Sarah Berry (Screen Style) has recently examined the extent to which Hollywood star images of the early 1930s encouragedfantasies of personal self-transformation and social mobility that, to some degree, challenged received notions of individual sovereignty, identity, and authority. Accordingly, star images were designed to empower individual spectators to flirt with temporary losses and mimetic transgressions of their ordinary selves; they promoted an ethos of individual self-formation that invited the viewer to adopt the star's features and translate them into a multiplicity of vernacular uses and meanings. In some sense, the 1934 article in Film Pictorial was the culmination of this trend. It not only presented the stars' bodies as prototypes for acts of personal self-redress, but literally dismembered the stars' corporeal appearances in order to fuel desire and capture the imagination. The notion of perfect beauty here bordered the monstrous. Far from recalling classical ideals of physical integrity, balance, and symmetry, the article's vision of composite beauty in fact reached Frankensteinian proportions. In its efforts to exploit the Hollywood cult of stardom at its fullest, Film Pictorial surreptitiously spoke the truth about the reifying logic of Fordist consumer culture. Instead of circulating star images as signs of authenticity and wholeness, Film Pictorial endorsed visions of the human body as marked by atomization and aggregation, by syncretism and montage. Instead of defining beauty as humanity's most captivating attraction, the article invited the fan to enter and exalt in nothing other than the realm of the posthuman, of prosthetic identities.

Given Dietrich's star status in Hollywood in the early 1930s, as well as the continual realignment of her persona with the tastes of Depression-ridden America, Dietrich's prominent position in the Film Pictorial ranking should hardly come as a surprise. What may astonish, however, is the fact that in its search for ideal body parts the article completely bypassed any mention of Dietrich's facial features: her sharp, elongated eyebrows, her dramatically elevated cheekbones, the enigmatic smile of her mouth, the canvas-like composition of her forehead and skin. In the perspective of the judges of Film Pictorial, Dietrich's body and its beauty seemed to begin somewhere below the star's neck. They had no eyes for how Dietrich tended to exhibit her face to her director's camera, nor did they encourage fans to mimic what has marked the circulation of the Dietrich image ever since, namely to emulate how Dietrich staged her countenance as a fetish, one that involved the viewer in a dazzling game of hide and seek, of lure and endless deferral, of multivalent attraction and theatrical artifice.

Film Pictorial's silence about Dietrich's face is particularly surprising if we consider the extent to which Dietrich, in her initial efforts to secure and increase her market value in 1930s Hollywood, subjected her face to a scrupulous process of remodeling and transformation. A good number of production stills and publicity materials, rejected by Dietrich for publication, and gathered at the Marlene Dietrich Collection in Berlin, document in a highly instructive manner Dietrich's quest for facial makeover during the 1930s. Time and again, we can see the trace of Dietrich's pen in these images, pointing out or even correcting certain unwanted aspects of her facial appearance: unwelcome shadows under her eyes; tiny wrinkles around her mouth; stray hairs, which by stubbornly sticking up seem to spoil a balanced framing of her face; and-of course-the much talked-about unsightliness of her nose, when seen in full or semiprofile. What is interesting to note is that almost all of Dietrich's interventions seek to remake her face by changing the distribution and collision of shadow and light in her countenance. Rather than dissecting the materiality of her face itself, Dietrich's ink pen literally sought to cast new light onto and thereby recompose her facial makeup. Like a fill light, it aspired to erase irritating shadows and harsh outlines; like a key light, this pen wanted to shift the viewer's attention to different areas of the face as captured in the respective image. Facial beautification, in these rejected publicity stills, was an effect, not of surgical intrusion or makeup modification, but of Dietrich's proficient rearrangement of lighting, its sources as much as its directions. Dietrich's pen here, to modify Alexandre Astruc's famous term, aspired to the status of a light-stylo. As it reworked given reproductions, it hoped to ensure that Dietrich's face could be seen as a direct expression of her own intentions, as a self-contained design actively authored by the star, as a form of language and writing effectively communicating a subject's interior visions.

Or so it seems at least. "Neithera realist nor a comic," writes James Naremore about the acting style of Marlene Dietrich, "she inhabits a realm where visible artifice becomes the sign of authenticity. She also challenges our ability to judge her acting skill, because her image is unusually dependent on a controlled, artful mise-en-scène" (Naremore 131). It is the task of the following pages to argue that Naremore's account of Dietrich's self-imaging does not even go far enough. Focusing on the production and circulation of Dietrich's face around 1933, I suggest that Dietrich's facial appearance not only urges the viewer to question conventional notions of acting and thespian skill. More important, this face asks us to unravel the very trope of authenticity that, in so many ways, informed the Hollywood cult of stardom at the time as much as the avant-garde's emphasis on authorship and aesthetic self-realization. Rather than merely synthesizing the artificial and the authentic, Dietrich's face provided something qualitatively different, something that questioned these terms' very validity and dialectic. Dietrich's face was a face without qualities; a site at which human and apparatical aspects, the corporeal and the technical, entertained symbiotic relationships. To read her face either as a sign of subjective expressiveness or as an auteur's text and language misses the point. For Dietrich's face invited her viewers to brush aside the whole conceptual matrix according to which critics and scholars had come and continue to evaluate the appearance of actors and images on screen, concepts such as authorship, expressiveness, authenticity, and intentional meaning. Instead of emphasizing the notion of the artist and star as a charismatic demiurge, as the sole creator and proprietor of works, Dietrich's face reveals the material reality and excessive circulation of signs in modern mass culture. Though often compared to the mask-like expression of Greta Garbo, Dietrich's face was of a completely different order from that of her Swedish competitor. Unlike Garbo's, Dietrich's face resisted reading and unsettled semiotic interpretation. In fact, Dietrich's relation to Garbo, as I will argue in what follows, equals that of digital to photographic images, of the morph to the classical performer. And it is precisely this cyborgian economy of Dietrich's face that might explain why Film Pictorial, in its 1934 issue, ignored the face of the woman all women were supposed to see. The beauty of Dietrich's face was so post-human, so much affected by and assimilated to modern technology, so much steeped in the ecstasy of image circulation, that it out-reified the essay's own strategies of reification and dismemberment. That Dietrich's face remained unnamed simply reflected the fact that, in the perspective of Film Pictorial, this face did not really exist.

Beyond Art and the Aesthetic

In 1933,a year before the publication of the mentioned issue of Film Pictorial, we find Dietrich on the Paramount sets for her first Hollywood production not directed by Josef von Sternberg-Rouben Mamoulian's quite provocative Song of Songs. "Solomon," Stephen Bach has written mockingly about this film and its challenges to contemporary production codes, "would not have objected: Marlene standing on her tip-toes, shoulders thrust back, breasts thrust forward, nipples at attention, pudenda smooth as a baby's bottom at a time when even a baby's bottom was a no-no at the Hays Office. It is not merely nude; it is naked" (Bach 167). Song of Songs tells the story of Lily Czepanek (Marlene Dietrich), an innocent country girl propelled into the hands of a Berlin-based Bohemian sculptor, Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne), after the death of her parents. Waldow molds Lily's body into a sleek sculpture only to cause Lily's social and his own emotional downfall. A direct product of male desire and fetishistic transferral, art in this film simultaneously intensifies and displaces life; it causes both ecstasy and trauma. Though Mamoulian's camera frequently lingers on Dietrich's face itself in order to open intimate windows on her ever shifting appearances, it spends almost equal time to offer us images of her statue in scenarios of what Gaylyn Studlar would call "iconic textuality," that is, highly choreographed scenarios emphasizing the sign as a creation independent of its referent (Studlar, Realm of Pleasure 85-107). In what is the film's perhaps most uncanny and excessive sequence, we see Waldow despairing in his studio over his aborted affair with Lily while the camera captures a number of quasi-photographic shots of the statue's face. Throughout this sequence, the editing increasingly separates the image of the statue's face from Waldow's own point of view. Close-ups of Waldow's own face alternate with close-ups of the sculpture as seen from a variety of ideal viewing angles. Meanwhile, the soundtrack carries us back to earlier times, in particular the time of the sculpture's making. Waldow's statue thus seems to gain a fantasmatic life of its own. As we explore the artist's tormented mindscape, the film's images fetishistically divorce the sign from its referent. The statue's face, in Waldow's inner perspective, seems to hold the absent referent in what Studlar calls an "I-know-but nevertheless" suspension (92). Although Waldow as much as the audience of course knows better, the sculptured face here becomes more real than the real, Mamoulian's camera engages our fantasy with a substitute of desire that sustains painful illusions of autonomy.

Song of Songs, in my view, is one of Dietrich's most important films, not because of its high degree of self-referentiality, but because it-as her first post-von Sternberg production-invites us to examine dominant narratives about the making of the Dietrich persona and its dependence on von Sternberg's authorship. In the early 1930s, the Armenian-Russian immigrant Mamoulian was known in Hollywood as a competent engineer of dramatic images and innovative sounds. A former student of Eugene Vakhtangov, who himself was a disciple of Stanislavsky, Mamoulian had entered the film industry as an experienced stage director. His pictures prior to 1933 had privileged expressive stylization over naturalistic restraint; both Applause (1929) and City Streets (1931) had been praised widely for their innovative camera work and intelligent sound editing, their way of translating relatively unassuming stories into compelling aesthetic surfaces. Paramount, therefore, had good reasons to endorse Mamoulian as a proficient substitute for von Sternberg, as a director capable of showcasing Dietrich as an exotic and enigmatic presence. Dietrich herself, however, initially disagreed with the studio's decision. As she was for many years to come, Dietrich at the time of the making of Song of Songs was far from ready to renounce the myth of von Sternberg's aesthetic genius and demiurgic power over her appearance, a myth best summarized by Otto Tolischus in a 1931 feature of Photoplay Magazine: "Like an artist working in clay, von Sternberg has molded and modeled her to his own design, and Marlene, plastic and willing to be material in the director's hands, has responded to his creative moods" (28). By severing her image from the ingenious talent of von Sternberg, Song of Songs in the eyes of Dietrich seemed to thwart her status as a singular art work, an extraordinary creation, a fantasmatic masterpiece in which surface became essence and artifice the sign of overwhelming authenticity.

The von Sternberg myth continues to hover over most discussions of Song of Songs, including the ones by Maria Riva in her 1993 portrayal of her mother's career and by Helma Sanders-Brahms in her 2000 book, Marlene and Jo. Riva recalls the making of Song of Songs as a story of her mother's artistic emancipation and self-constitution. It was while working on this film, Riva argues, that Dietrich took control over her own star image, learning some of the basic principles of cinematic lighting and recording in order to stage her face and body most effectively (without von Sternberg's aid). Not only did Dietrich, during the shooting, watch some of her earlier features in a private screening room (with her daughter in attendance) so as to better understand how to stage her corporeal features in front of the camera. On the set, she also made extensive use of a special mirror helping her to manage her own looks and prepare for the recording process. This mirror was a full-length contraption, bolted on a trolley, with three high-wattage light bulbs on either side. As Riva narrates: "The electricians plugged it in, the grips, under my mother's directions, positioned it until she, standing on her marks within the shooting set, could see herself exactly as the camera would. Mamoulian and Victor Milner, the cameraman, watched with dawning respect, fascinated. It had taken her only a few seconds to know the exact angle and position of the first shot" (175). Once she was used to this mirror, Dietrich-in Riva's memory-took command over the technicians behind the camera as well. She asked the lighting crew to change the angle and position of key and fill lights while looking at her reflection, to the utter admiration of the film's production staff and director. Looking at this mirror, Dietrich finally learned how to create and administer her own image on film and cast her face into an alluring work of art, a step into independence enthusiastically welcomed by her daughter: "She had done it! All by herself, she had achieved what she had set out to do! I was so proud of her-I could have kissed her! Of course I couldn't because of the makeup, but I felt like it anyway" (179).

Sanders-Brahms largely follows Riva's account, yet carries the argument into a slightly different direction. What in the eyes of Riva constitutes a story of self-empowerment and emancipation, in the perspective of Sanders-Brahms represents a narrative in whose course Dietrich learns how to recreate the ideal model designed for her by von Sternberg. According to Sanders-Brahms, what von Sternberg tried to teach Dietrich was to stage her face in front of different light sources in such a way that smallest physical movements could produce dramatic changes in appearance: "She realizes that, whenever she raises or lowers her chin a little, whenever she moves a millimeter to the left or the right, she can produce different shadows and illuminations on her face. And that she can thus change her face-yes, even more, that her face can change its inner expression. The flatter and more expressionless her face, the higher the intensity by which light will transform it and even signify emotions" (117). In Sanders-Brahms's understanding, the intelligent, albeit unimaginative, Mamoulian was in no position to achieve comparable effects in his films. Forced by legal threats to show up on the set, Dietrich's principle concern thus became to save her face both literally and metaphorically. Removed from von Sternberg's molding hands, Dietrich had to actualize the master's teaching on her own, that is to say, to counter or infuse Mamoulian's murky craftsmanship with von Sternberg's awe-inspiring aesthetics of light. Hence her request to have the mirror placed right next to the camera. Hence her attempt to take command over the film's lighting crew, her determination to tell the film's gaffer and his assistants where to place key, fill, and spot lights, and how to shape and emphasize the features of her countenance. Hence also, according to Sanders-Brahms, the film's ultimate failure, caused by the unresolved clash between two different cinematic styles, that is, Mamoulian's inability to elevate his own work to the level of Dietrich's diegetic self-creation as a transcendent work of art, a phenomenon of a distance however close it may be.


Excerpted from Dietrich Icon Copyright © 2007 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: Marlene Dietrich's Appropriations     3
Falling in Love Again     25
The Icon
Dietrich's Face     43
The Legs of Marlene Dietrich     60
Marlene Dietrich: The Voice as Mask     79
Establishing the Star Persona
Playing Garbo: How Marlene Dietrich Conquered Hollywood     103
Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in The Blue Angel     119
The Blue Angel in Multiple-Language Versions: The Inner Thighs of Miss Dietrich     141
Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus: Advertising Dietrich in Seven Markets     162
Marlene Dietrich: The Prodigal Daughter     186
"Marlene Has Sex but No Gender
Marlene Dietrich and the Erotics of Code-Bound Hollywood     211
"Its Not Often That I Want a Man": Reading for a Queer Marlene     239
Get/Away: Structure and Desire in Rancho Notorious     259
(Auto -) Biography and the Archive
The Order of Knowledge and Experience: Marlene Dietrich's ABC     289
Dietrich Dearest: Family Memoir and the Fantasy of Origins     310
An Icon between the Fronts: Vilsmaier's Recast Marlene     328
"Life Goes On without Me": Marlene Dietrich, Old Age, and the Archive     347
Homage, Impersonation, and Magic: AnInterview with James Beaman     364
"Is That Me?": The Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin     376
Bibliography     385
Contributors     401
Index     405
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