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December 2nd, 2008
Biography: Marlene Dietrich

Biography by Gerd Gemünden
Professor of German Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Comparative Literature
Dartmouth College

(b. Berlin 1901 – d. Paris 1992)

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel

Born Maria Magdalene Dietrich. Actress and chanteuse. The only world star the German cinema ever produced, Marlene Dietrich’s career spans from Weimar Germany to the Hollywood studios where she worked between 1930 and 1961 with the most acclaimed Hollywood directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair, Stanley Kramer, and most notably Josef von Sternberg with whom she made seven films between 1929 and 1935. Her subsequent career as a singer extended her fame through performances around the world. Combining Prussian discipline and work ethic with an extraordinary talent for reinvention, Dietrich had a professional career of some 70 years, one that included not only classic Hollywood cinema and the concert hall, but also silent film, classical theater, modern theater, musical comedies, vaudeville, the army camp shows, radio, recordings, television, even circus and the ballet. Rising to stardom through her performance of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (dir. von Sternberg, 1930) she left for Hollywood and later resisted Joseph Goebbels’ many offers to join the film industry of the Third Reich.

Photo from Dietrich’s application for U.S. citizenship.
Click to see the application.

In the United States she rose to international stardom but she also experienced the callousness of the Hollywood studio system; when her films ceased to attract audiences she was labeled “box office poison” in 1937. A US citizen as of 1939, she actively supported the war effort by performing for US troops stationed abroad and was awarded the “Medal of Freedom” in 1947, the first woman to receive this distinction. Dietrich’s first return to Germany after the war was in the company of US combat troops. Many Germans never forgave her for what they perceived as a betrayal, picketing her 1960 tour through Germany by demanding that “Marlene go home.” Her last public concert appearance was in Sydney in 1975. A recluse in her apartment for the last years of her life, Dietrich died in Paris in 1992, having willed her remains to be buried in her native Berlin.



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