This new portrait of the legendary Marlene Dietrich, made by her grandson, J. David Riva, provides some fresh insights into the life and times of a remarkable woman. Concentrating on the tireless and courageous work undertaken by the actress-singer during World War II when she entertained Allied troops across Europe, the film contains unseen home movies and other material of major interest. However, it disappoints in the poor quality of the film excerpts included, which in no way represent the pristine quality of the original material. Nevertheless, “Her Own Song” will be essential for fest and quality TV programmers in the coming months.
What comes across most strongly in Riva’s film is the passion with which Dietrich opposed the Nazi regime. When she embarked on a campaign to sell war bonds, she was well aware of the irony: The money would help make bombs to drop on Berlin, where her mother still lived.
Detailed in examining Dietrich’s contribution to the war effort, pic is evasive about her personal life. In this version, the loves of her life were her husband, Rudolf Sieber, and French actor Jean Gabin. Other liaisons, including her relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, who gave her international stardom, are ignored.
Using now-familiar newsreel footage, Riva sketches his grandmother’s background and youth in Berlin in a bourgeois Prussian family. By the late 1920s, Dietrich was already a player in the heady atmosphere of Berlin at a time when taboos were being broken.
She began her acting career in the theater, and had made 17 films by 1929, only one of which, “Tragedy of Love” (1923), is briefly excerpted. She met her future husband at an audition and he was, according to their daughter, Maria Riva, a source of strength for her. Referring to an early photograph of the couple, Maria notes, “They’re so beautiful together, they look like brother and sister.”
UFA, the Berlin studio co-producing “The Blue Angel” with Paramount, did not want Dietrich to play Lola Lola, but Sternberg insisted. The famous audition is shown, with Dietrich singing, in an off-hand way, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”
The success of “The Blue Angel” resulted in a Paramount contract, and former studio exec A.C. Lyles recalls the impact the sultry, disdainful Berliner had at the studio. The famous scene in her first Hollywood film, “Morocco,” in which, dressed in a tux, she kisses a female nightclub patron on the lips, is marred by the muddy quality of the material. Same problem afflicts brief clips from such subsequent Sternberg collaborations as “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express” and “The Devil Is a Woman,” a ghastly shortcoming given the films’ visual glories.
“Morocco” and “Dishonored” were both banned in Germany, and the campaign against Dietrich began in earnest when the Nazis came to power in 1933, though Goebbels, who admired her films, made frequent secret offers to her to return and become the reigning queen of Nazi cinema. She indignantly refused all such offers.
In the late ’30s, she further defied the Nazis by taking U.S. citizenship. With the outbreak of war, she worked at the Hollywood Canteen, often preferring to wash dishes with Hedy Lamarr. “Get those two krauts out of the kitchen,” Bette Davis is supposed to have ordered, Maria Riva says.
Dietrich met the exiled Gabin at about this time, and a passionate affair ensued. Color home-movie footage shows them relaxing by a pool, or on horseback, dressed in cowboy clothes. When Gabin decided to return to France to fight with the Free French, Dietrich took up her hazardous war work, entertaining troops in many countries and almost getting trapped behind enemy lines.
She was one of the first civilians to enter Germany, and the film includes a recording of her first phone conversation with her mother, in which the mother forgives Dietrich for her contribution to the Allied war effort.
Last part of the film focuses on Dietrich’s concert tours, including a moving performance in Warsaw (she was one of the first American entertainers to perform in Communist-controlled Eastern Europe) and an occasion in Tel Aviv when she sang Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in German, to an apparently startled audience.
Also included are (high-quality) scenes from Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg”; Maria Riva notes that her mother was nervous about the scene in which her character assures Spencer Tracy the German people did not know what the Nazis were doing to the Jews.
Apart from the poor quality of the ’30s film clips, doc is crisply produced. There are two versions; the English-language one is narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, with Nina Franoszek providing the voice of Dietrich. Among the many personalities interviewed, standouts are Burt Bacharach, who worked as Dietrich’s music arranger in her later years; Rosemary Clooney, who knew her well; and the late Hildegarde Knef, who talks of Dietrich’s final 16 years of seclusion in Paris. The film ends with her Berlin funeral, where passersby threw flowers onto her coffin in a final gesture of affection for one of Germany’s greatest entertainers and personalities.