Joseph Vilsmaier’s much-awaited Dietrich biopic, “Marlene,” is a momentarily diverting but surprisingly unengaging trot through the icon’s life that rarely approaches the high-water mark of his previous widescreen opus, “Comedian Harmonists,” partly due to major miscasting of actress Katja Flint in the title role. With a reported $ 10 million budget (huge by local standards), the pic opened in March amid much hype and marketing, but drew downer reviews and bland B.O. Offshore chances look blue rather than angelic.
Looking a tad too old in the early scenes and way too icy throughout most of the picture, Flint, 39, emerges as a reasonable Dietrich look-alike but lacks any hint of the personal and professional magnetism that attracted lovers of both sexes and an adoring public. A good actress in the right roles, Flint never gets under the skin of the title character.
Credited as “based on factual material” from the bio by Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, script uses as bookends the 1975 appearance at Carnegie Hall that was Dietrich’s last public outing. (Thesp died a recluse in Paris in ’92.) After a glitzy opening, pic rewinds to 1929 Berlin, where Dietrich is working nights at a theater to support her husband Rudi (Herbert Knaup) and her young daughter.
When director Josef von Sternberg (Hans-Werner Meyer) visits the theater with an eye to cast a UFA talkie, “The Blue Angel,” she attracts his eye but plays hard to get. Against the wishes of producer Erich Pommer (Heiner Lauterbach) and pic’s porky star, Emil Jannings, Sternberg holds out for her, molding a screen persona out of the overweight, inexperienced actress.
Their professional relationship soon turns personal, and, immediately after the successful preem of the movie in 1930, Dietrich follows Sternberg to Hollywood with his Paramount deal, leaving Rudi to consolidate an affair with their Russian nanny, Tamara (Christiane Paul).
The movie’s first 50 minutes, before moving to Hollywood, are among the best, with time spent developing the characters and a good feel for Berlin of the period. Thereafter, “Marlene” follows the well-traveled biopic route of frequent datelines, famous characters popping up on set and at parties, and the emergence of Nazism back in Germany, with Dietrich criticized in the local press for deserting her homeland for Jewish geld.
Script acknowledges Dietrich’s stance against Nazism but never gets too deep into the subject, settling for a visit by party heavies while she is on a clandestine trip to Austria to visit a lover. “The Reich needs you,” threatens an Aryan official (Ben Becker). “I don’t need the Reich. Thank you,” replies Dietrich.
Pic ends its flashback with Dietrich’s return to Berlin in U.S. army uniform in ’45, with no mention of her subsequent return in ’60, where she received a hostile reception. Likewise, though her voracious bisexual appetites aren’t glossed over, only one major star is identified: actor “Gary” (Cooper) in “Morocco.” A fictional German, Carl Seidlitz (Heino Ferch), stands in as the all-embracing love of her life.
Considerable money and attention go toward re-creating vintage Berlin and Hollywood, to often convincing effect, but on the casting side little attempt is made to find look-alikes for well-known personalities. “Gary” and Sternberg are especially notable in this respect, and Meyer’s perf as the latter hardly catches the helmer’s complex personality.
Widescreen lensing by Vilsmaier himself is always well composed, though color quality declines in the California location shooting.