This publicity still captures the most incendiary moment from the 1930 film The Blue Angel. The story of a puritanical schoolteacher undone by his passion for a nightclub singer, it was Germany’s first full-length talking picture, intended to showcase the renowned actor Emil Jannings but instead making an international star of an unknown, the 28-year-old Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich plays Lola Lola, a performer in a seedy club called the Blue Angel. In this scene she gazes at the enraptured schoolmaster up in the balcony, one silk-stockinged leg pulled toward her chest. The resultant image riveted some filmgoers while appalling others, amongst them Heinrich Mann, author of the novel on which the film was based, who was outraged that a work he intended as a sober chronicle of bourgeois hypocrisy had been transformed into a spectacle dominated by “Miss Dietrich’s naked thighs”.
That image was about all I associated with The Blue Angel when I began researching Dietrich’s career for the Radio 3 series Dietrich in Five Songs. At some point as a child I’d seen the film on American television, and I remembered finding it strange and unsettling. But any more specific recollections were overshadowed by the film’s reverberations in movies I absorbed in my teens: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), in which a gay son played by Helmut Berger impersonates Dietrich-as-Lola to taunt his Nazi industrialist father; and Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), in which a saloon full of cowboys are entertained by Madeline Kahn in full Lola regalia as a world-weary chanteuse named Lili von Shtupp.
Yet behind those echoes lies a film with a complex and radical history. Filmed late in 1929 immediately after the Wall Street crash, The Blue Angel captures a world on the brink of disaster, infused as it is with the sensibility of the kabarett, the signature entertainment form of Weimar Berlin. Clubs like the Schall und Rauch and Cafe Grossenwahn were hotbeds of dissidence and experimentation, with Jewish, socialist, feminist, and queer artists fusing astringent political satire with flamboyant erotic display. Director Josef von Sternberg created The Blue Angel out of the those building blocks, filling the cast with kabarett veterans like Friedrich Hollaender, Kurt Gerron, and Rosa Valetti (who stands behind Dietrich in the publicity still). Dietrich herself knew the kabarett world less as a performer than as a patron: an habitue of clubs like the Silhouette and the Eldorado, where the sexual spectrum blurred (as one Eldorado dancer proclaimed when a patron demanded to know if they were male or female, “I am whatever sex you wish me to be”). Her portrayal of Lola drew on that milieu, even down to the details of her attire. The costume she wears in the publicity still – a short black dress, silver top hat, black garters, and frilly white knickers – was one that Dietrich contrived herself after seeing it on a cross-dressed sex worker she regularly passed on the Berlin streets.
Those echoes gave the film its transgressive lustre, but they also marked it for condemnation. To the rapidly ascending National Socialist party, everything about kabarett culture was an anathema: its political satire, its sexual dissidence, the undesirables who formed its creative backbone. After 1933 most kabarett artists left the country. Friedrich Hollaender went to America; Rosa Valetti drifted from Vienna to Prague to Palestine before her death in 1937. Kurt Gerron refused offers of employment in Hollywood and moved to Paris and then Amsterdam, where he was arrested and ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.
As for The Blue Angel – on its release in 1930 the Nazis declared it “mediocre and corrupting kitsch”, and on assuming power they banned it. The new Germany would not tolerate political satire, or sexual dissidence, or modernist experimentation, or any work “contaminated” by Jewish influence or deemed to “insult German feeling”. The Blue Angel had a Jewish director and a Jewish screenwriter, and that in itself would have been enough to condemn it, but adding to its notoriety was the growing hostility of Dietrich herself.
As an aspiring actress in the 1920s, Dietrich had no political profile to speak of. That she left Germany in 1930 owed largely to personal ambition. The morning after The Blue Angel’s Berlin premiere, her ears still ringing with the sound of ovations, she boarded a steamship to New York and from there a train to Hollywood, where she took up a contract with Paramount Pictures and made six further films with Josef von Sternberg, becoming the most famous German actor who had ever lived.
With that, the Nazis’ relationship to her became enormously complicated. The party believed that motion pictures were an invaluable tool of propaganda – in the words of Culture Minister Joseph Goebbels, “the most modern and scientific means of influencing the mass.” While Lola Lola may have struck them as tawdry, in Dietrich herself they saw an Aryan goddess: a vision of Teutonic loveliness, the daughter of a Prussian officer, and (highly conveniently) not remotely Jewish. Despite the official ban on The Blue Angel, Hitler hoarded a personal copy, which he screened at the least opportunity, forcing audiences of restless, alcohol-deprived diplomats to watch it in reverent silence. Sometime around 1936 he instructed Goebbels to persuade her to return and put her gifts in service of the Reich. She would become queen of the German film industry, all its resources amassed at her feet.
In the end Dietrich was politicised, but not as the Nazis intended. By 1933 she was funding Jewish refugees to escape the country, and she returned to Europe repeatedly to plead with her mother and sister to leave. On one visit in 1938, her brother-in-law arrived bearing yet another invitation from Goebbels. That Naziism had infiltrated her own family appalled her, and on her return to Los Angeles she took out American citizenship. “Dietrich has spent so many years among the film Jews of Hollywood that [she has been] rendered wholly un-German,” wrote the Nazi paper Die Sturmer. Below the photograph of her taking her oath in a tailored suit and floppy fedora, the caption read: “Judge administers oath to Dietrich so that she may betray the Fatherland”.
In the decade that followed Dietrich became an outspoken anti-fascist and a tireless supporter of the Allied troops. In 1944 she enlisted as an entertainer in the USO, performing four times a day on makeshift stages in North Africa, Italy, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and then, at tremendous personal risk, in Germany and Czechoslovakia behind enemy lines. Attempts to temper her bluntness invariably failed. Once in North Africa, invited to sing “Lili Marlene” on Armed Forces Radio, she grabbed the microphone and unleashed a torrent of fury at the German soldiers she thought might be listening: “Jungs! Opfert euch nicht! Der Krieg ist doch Scheisse, Hitler ist ein Idiot!” (“Boys! Don’t sacrifice yourselves! The war is shit! Hitler is an idiot!”) Surveying a bombarded Aachen late in 1944, she told a reporter, “I guess Germany deserves everything that’s coming to her” – a remark for which, even decades later, many of her compatriots never forgave her.
Today Dietrich is best remembered as an icon of glamour and sexual fluidity, signalled by the bold androgyny she displayed offscreen and on. Yet that pansexual sophistication tells only part of the story. The rest – the part she valued most – was entwined with the fight against fascism. Her work in that cause was, she once stated, “the only important thing I’ve ever done”.