Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017

"A Foreign “Affair” on the Domestic Scene: Marlene Dietrich’s Contributions to U.S. Cinema, Society, and Culture" by Gábor Földessy

Gábor Földessy received his Bachelor’s degree in English and American Studies from Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPKE) in Budapest. He went on to Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, where he earned a Master’s degree in American Studies in 2016. His research interests include 20th century American history, foreign policy, and social history, U.S. immigration, as well as the cinema and culture of the United States. Email:

To the memory of my Grandparents and Great-Grandparents


“International movie star,” “cabaret artist extraordinaire,” “Allied power’s most valuable cheerleader,” as well as “gay icon” (Allen n.pag.)—these attributes can be read on the homepage of the Classic Movie Hub about one of the greatest European celebrity of the 20th century: Marlene Dietrich. However, I would also add expressions like ‘versatile talent,’ ‘a pioneer in fashion,’ and ‘absolutely one of a kind.’ Howsoever, “Marlene Dietrich is a woman of many titles” (Allen n.pag.). Her story begins in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when a number of gifted film people left the German-speaking world and transferred their traditions, cultural values, innovations, talent, and experiences to the American motion picture industry: these European film people, including Dietrich, had a lasting impact on “the cinematography, acting, directing, set design, music and other aspects of American cinema” (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). The aim of this essay is to examine the German-born actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich’s contributions to the American entertainment industry as well as to U.S. society and culture. In addition, prior to discussing Dietrich’s influence on the U.S., the paper also seeks to give a brief overview of the European founders and the development of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century.

The Founding of Hollywood: The European Roots of the American Film Industry

Hollywood was established by two prominent European people around 1910 (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). One of them was the German Carl Laemmle “who founded Universal Studios” and was also “the co-founder of MGM Studios,” and the other was Marcus Loew, whose family moved to the United States from Austria (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). Both Laemmle and Loew “played a significant part in getting Hollywood’s infant industry off to its start” (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.).

In the subsequent decades, Hollywood’s history was shaped primarily by two major waves of immigration from Europe (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). The first major group of film people arrived in California in the 1920s (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). After World War I, Hollywood needed the innovations of the European film industry (Sinyard and Turner 4). Furthermore, at the time Dietrich was a young lady, namely “[b]etween 1919 and 1933, the Weimar years, the German film industry arguably produced its most impressive collection of films to date” that also attracted the attention of the American movie moguls (Skaerved 3). The two film experts and professors, Neil Sinyard and Adrian Turner point out that “Hollywood studios were impressed by the sophistication and technical virtuosity of much European cinema and periodically sent delegations to Europe with the sole purpose of improving the American cinema by importing European talent” (4). Thus, the most significant European film people who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s were among others “the German director Ernst Lubitsch, the German actor Conrad Veidt, the German-Swiss director William Wyler, and the […] Hungarian director Michael Curtiz” (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). In addition, in 1930, the German actress Marlene Dietrich also arrived “with her star director, Josef von Sternberg”1 (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.).

The newly arrived European film talents of the 1920s played a crucial role in the development of Hollywood (Abrams 68-69). While in “the 1920s Hollywood’s population” multiplied, the American motion picture industry on the west coast also underwent a major and significant alteration (Abrams 68-69). Historian Brett L. Abrams describes the remarkable change in Hollywood as follows:

[m]ovie-making became the eleventh largest industry in the nation. The large studios transformed the “barn” structures of the early 1910s into the series of buildings and sets behind tall gates […]. The production wings of the big eight studios functioned like factories. Each studio employed nearly three thousand people, and a single department, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s makeup department, could handle twelve hundred actors in an hour. The growth of the movie industry brought more people and money to the Los Angeles area. As the movie industry grew, related industries, including costume and prop stores, expanded. (69)

While the development of Hollywood was underway, between 1932 and 1945, the second wave of European film talents, who are commonly known as the “Exiles,” also arrived (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). When Hitler became a leading political figure in Germany, more than “1500 German or German-speaking Central European directors, writers, producers, actors, technicians and other white-collar workers who had worked in the film industries of Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Budapest were blacklisted by the National Socialists for no other reason than they were Jewish” (Asper and Horak 134). In a short time, “[t]he Nazis drove some of the best film talent in Europe out of Austria and Germany to France, England, and with few exceptions, eventually to Hollywood” (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). The newly arrived refugees made every effort to integrate into American society: “they sought to assimilate as quickly as possible, without a thought of returning to their former homeland” (Asper and Horak 134). Thus, they rapidly acquired the “new language” in order “to ‘become Americans’ ” (Asper and Horak 134). Nevertheless, while some of these film talents such as “the Austrians Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner […], Billy Wilder,2 and Peter Lorre” became rich and prosperous in Hollywood, others became “neither terribly successful nor very happy” in the U.S.3 such as director Wilhelm Thiele “who had enjoyed highly respected standing in Europe, were forced to settle for making second-rate, low-budget films in Hollywood” (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.).

The majority of film people who moved to Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century started to work in the film industry in Berlin, Germany (Phillips 5). In 1912, the Babelsberg Film Studio was founded “in Potsdam-Babelsberg next to Berlin” (“Babelsberg Studios” n.pag.). In the 1920s, numerous films “including […] Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel” were made in Babelsberg (“Babelsberg Studios” n.pag.). Concerning Berlin in the 1920s, author Gene D. Phillips points out that “this period became known as the golden age of German cinema, when directors like Ernst Lubitsch (Madame Du Barry), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu), and Fritz Lang (Metropolis) produced major silent films in Germany that were seen around the world” (5). Consequently, in the 1920s, Berlin “was the film capital of Europe” as well as the “heady center of the arts that drew ambitious young people from all over Europe” (Phillips 4-5).

Marlene Dietrich: From a Unique Girlhood toward the Invitation from Hollywood

Like many of her contemporaries who crossed the Atlantic to Hollywood, Marlene Dietrich also began her career in the German film industry (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Born in Berlin, Germany on December 27, 1901 as Marie Magdalene Dietrich,4 she was a unique girl throughout her childhood who always sought to be in the center of attention (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Her personality can be described as follows: “[f]rom the beginning, Dietrich was a rebel, running counter to what people expected and social mores. […] Dietrich, even as a child, had a certain aura and strength of character that often made people overlook her flaws and excesses” (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). What is more, her personality traits remained the same over the years: in her later life, Dietrich was a revolutionary woman who “often dressed as a man and sang in films and on stage in a style that could be interpreted as lesbian and bisexual at a time when” it was entirely unusual and weird (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.).

After her finger seriously injured in her early life, Dietrich had to give up her initial dream of becoming a famous violinist and turned toward acting (Higham 43-44). In 1922, the 21-year-old Dietrich made the first attempt to become an actress: she took part in an audition organized by Max Reinhardt’s5 acting school in Berlin (Skaerved 24-25). Despite the fact that she was refused, Dietrich did not give up her dreams (Skaerved 25). Later, she appeared in smaller stage performances and occasionally played roles in cabarets (Higham 49-50). Dietrich received her first role in the movie Der kleine Napoleon [The Little Napoleon] in 1922 (Higham 51). A contemporary production designer, Fritz Maurischaat wrote in his diary about Dietrich’s behavior during the audition that

[i]t was my job to interview these girls. One morning, a line formed which went all the way down the corridor and down the stairs. In this line was a tiny, fragile creature, dressed in a loose wrap almost as intimate as a negligee. […] she could easily have been overlooked […] she had with her a puppy on a leash, and none of the other girls did […]. Seeing how the dog affected everyone, Marlene picked it up and held it in her arms. She came to my desk. As she did so, there was something about her movements that made me say to myself, […] ‘My God! How attractive she is!’ (qtd. in Higham 51-52)

As the passage from Maurischaat’s diary reveals, despite the fact that a great number of girls took part in the audition, Dietrich’s dress, personality, and “movements” were so special and unique that she immediately enthralled Maurischaat.

After the successful audition that led her to major film roles, Dietrich became more and more famous across Germany: both the critics and the audience adored her (Higham 54-55). Besides films, she also had leading roles in stage performances like The Circle (1922), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1922), When the New Vine Blossoms (1923), and Spring’s Awakening (1924) (Higham 54-55). By 1926, she played the leading part both in films and in stage performances in Berlin and in Vienna like in the German version of the American play Broadway (Higham 63-69). A contemporary German actress, Käthe Haack told about Dietrich’s performance in Broadway that

I will never forget Marlene in Broadway. She played one scene on her own, lying downstage. She was very, very sexy, and she bicycled her legs in the air, slowly, in front of the audience. The legs were so breathtaking, everyone was talking about this terrific woman. Berlin in those days was the most exciting city in the world. At parties and festivities everybody talked about this woman. […] But nobody really thought that she would ever be a big movie star. (qtd. in Higham 65)

As the above quotation shows, apart from her uniqueness and extraordinary talent, Dietrich’s successes can also be attributed to her beautiful legs. Moreover, the quotation also provides a demonstration as to Dietrich’s reputation: via her performance, she became so popular that “everybody talked about this woman.” In addition to the Germans, the Americans were also impressed by Dietrich’s performance in Broadway (Higham 65). The contemporary “Hollywood writer,” Felix Jackson remarked that

I was the assistant to Viktor Barnowsky, who produced Broadway. Marlene made an impression on everyone. She showed off her figure without underwear, I also remember. She gave me a picture of her daughter and said to me, ‘I shall be a very big star, very soon!’ I didn’t believe a word of it. I said, ‘Yes, sure,’ and thought, ‘They’re all like that, those young girls. She’ll get over it.’ Well, she didn’t. (qtd. in Higham 65)

As Jackson admitted, he was completely fascinated by Dietrich’s body and performance in Broadway. Moreover, Jackson also highlighted Dietrich’s firm ambitions concerning the movie industry as she made the assertion that “I shall be a very big star, very soon!”

For Marlene Dietrich, the breakthrough, international fame, and the invitation from the United States came in the fall of 1930 (Skaerved 59-60). When Dietrich played the leading part—“the role of Mabel, the cynical, money-mad American heiress to thirty million dollars”—on stage in Zwei Krawatten [Two Bow Ties] on September 15, 1929, she “made a sensation” (Higham 79-80). The movie director, Josef von Sternberg who was trying to find the best actress for the leading role of his new film (which was the role of Lola-Lola) was also fascinated by Dietrich’s performance (Higham 84). Actually, Dietrich’s impact on Sternberg was the springboard for her future career since, as biographer Charles Higham writes,

[a]rriving late, seated in the front row, von Sternberg looked so rapturously at Marlene’s insolently self-assured, leggy pose at the ship’s rail that […] [he] knew at once that he had his Lola-Lola. The role of Mabel was the essence of Berlin, sexual and cynical all at once, satiated with worldly pleasures. But there was another quality as well: a quality of tenderness and warmth, a womanliness alongside the veiled masculinity of the direct stare. This quality of sex without gender proved intoxicating to the young director. (84-85)

Thus, after the show, von Sternberg immediately offered Dietrich to play the role of Lola-Lola both in the German and in the English version of his upcoming movie, in Der Blaue Engel and in The Blue Angel, respectively (Skaerved 49) (see also Figure 1 below).


Figure 1. “Dietrich’s Lola-Lola on stage with the orchestra” (Skaerved 53). In this scene, Marlene wears “her own” dress: both her bare legs and her unique dress played a significant role in mesmerizing the audience (Skaerved 46). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 53.


The German audience and the critics were enthralled by Dietrich’s performance in Der Blaue Engel (Higham 94). With a view to perfecting her performing skills for the movie, von Sternberg incessantly required Dietrich “to rehearse or to repeat scenes over and over again” (Higham 88-90). What is more, as von Sternberg recalled later in an interview, he “instructed [Dietrich], presented her carefully, edited her charms, […] and led her to crystallize a pictorial aphrodisiac” (qtd. in Skaerved 52). In addition, “to illuminate her face properly,” von Sternberg also “taught her to check the lighting of a scene before the cameras turned”6 (Phillips 103). Hence, as a result of “von Sternberg’s exacting directing and lighting [Dietrich] literally glowed” (Skaerved 72). On the other hand, Dietrich also aimed at fascinating both von Sternberg and the audience: in order to amaze both of them, “Dietrich created her own costumes, her original sense of style adding to the part”7 (Skaerved 46). For the role in the film, Dietrich also wore “lingerie, a white collar, and the famous top hat, she came up with the perfect look for Lola-Lola” (Skaerved 54). Thus, by the end of “the shooting of the picture, it became known in Berlin that a great star was being born” (Higham 91). Both Dietrich’s and von Sternberg’s efforts resulted in victory: the premiere of the German version of the film in Berlin on March 31, 1930 was so successful that “the audience stood and roared its approval” (Higham 94). What is more, the critics also praised Dietrich for her amazing performance, and even “the greatest historian of German film, Siegfried Kracauer” recognized Dietrich’s artistry and outstanding acting skills (Higham 98). He made the assertion that

[h]er Lola Lola was a new incarnation of sex. This petty bourgeois tart, with her provocative legs and easy manners, showed an impassivity which incited one to grope behind her callous egoism and cool insolence. That such a secret existed was also intimated by her veiled voice, which, when she sang about her interest in love-making and nothing else, vibrated with nostalgic reminiscences and smoldering hopes. (qtd. in Wagner 49)

In addition to the critics, the media also emphasized Dietrich’s extraordinary talent and performance: a prominent German film journal, the Berliner Reichsfilmblatt wrote that “[o]ne is almost stunned by Miss Dietrich’s performance. Her ability to take over scenes effortlessly but with simple and total command is something we have until now never experienced” (qtd. in Higham 98). Also, a contemporary newspaper, the Berliner Börsenkourier mentioned concerning Dietrich’s performance that “The Sensation: Marlene Dietrich! She sings and plays almost without effort, phlegmatically. But this knowing phlegmaticism excites. She does not ‘act’ common: she is” (qtd. in Higham 98). As both passages above from the contemporary newspapers pointed out, Dietrich had a natural talent for acting and singing, and her performance was marvelous because she was able to act in a unique way.

While the German version of the film brought her recognition and reputation in the German media, Dietrich’s uniqueness and legendary performance in The Blue Angel attracted the attention of Hollywood’s talent scouts (Higham 92). Representatives from the major American film studios also took part in the premiere of The Blue Angel in Berlin, like the film producer from Universal Studios, Joe Pasternak who remarked about Dietrich that

[s]he was the sexiest woman I had ever seen, […]. She moved like a cat. She was glamor personified. When she bestrode a stool and opened her legs, showing frilly pants, it was an almost brutal invitation. The moment I saw her do the scene, I knew every red-blooded man in the world would want to answer that invitation. I knew she would be world-famous, I knew she would have the one essential ingredient of international stardom: millions of guys would want to make love to her. Finally, my director on the picture I was doing, Bill Dieterle, said: ‘You’re spending more time on von Sternberg’s set than you are on your own. Why? Aren’t you more interested in working with me?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but you’re not a woman in tights.’ (qtd. in Higham 92)

As Pasternak admitted, he was completely enchanted by Dietrich’s performance, behavior, and beautiful legs in her “frilly pants,” and as he also foretold, Marlene was on the right track and she would surely achieve international reputation. Besides Pasternak and Universal, the delegates from Paramount sent messages to Hollywood in which they drew the attention of the studio to the fact that “She is sensational” and “Hire her” (qtd. in Higham 92). Concerning Dietrich’s career and popularity at this point, Higham underlines that

[o]ne can only speculate on Marlene’s feelings as, after eleven years of struggle, she knew she had achieved her goal. […] In ninety minutes Marlene had been launched internationally. Within two weeks she was a household word in Europe, and within six month her fame was known from coast to coast in America. (94)

All in all, the English version of the movie was so adored by the American movie studios that, on the day of the premiere of the film, Dietrich received an invitation from Hollywood: she relocated in the United States and signed a contract with Paramount Studios8 (Higham 92-96). Consequently, Dietrich’s marvelous performance, her beautiful legs, as well as her self-made and unique outfit had such a great impact on the representatives of the American film studios that she was instantly offered to move to the United States (Higham 92-95). Thus, considering the above mentioned, it can be concluded that, as a result of Hollywood’s quest for a German film talent, Dietrich transferred her innate talent, her experiences, her extraordinary acting skills, and her artistry including her innovative and unique apparel from the German film industry to Hollywood.

Nevertheless, Dietrich’s relocation in the U.S. was also both a historically and culturally significant event (Higham 96). When Dietrich was offered to work for Hollywood, Germany suffered from the serious consequences of the 1929 Great Depression: rebellions and widespread protests against “mass unemployment” were common across the country (Higham 96). What is more, by 1930, Hitler “was already a poisonous influence in Berlin,” hence numerous people were forced to flee from the country (Higham 96). Accordingly, to examine Dietrich’s leaving of Germany and her arrival in the USA on April 9, 1930 from a historical-cultural perspective, as Higham points out,

Marlene’s departure for America was not only politic but symbolic. She was to become a symbol of a free Germany in exile, an inspiration for German expatriates whom she would devote herself to reestablishing across the Atlantic. To this day, the survivors worship her. (96)

Moreover, professor Elisabeth Bronfen also mentions concerning Dietrich’s leaving of her homeland that “The Blue Angel also marks Marlene’s seemingly irreversible crossing of a concrete geopolitical boundary, i.e., her resolute departure from Germany, for which there would be a poignantly ambivalent homecoming after her death”9 (10). In addition, as Dietrich arrived in America, she also became a symbol of happiness and relief in the United States: as the economic depression ruined the lives of millions and bankrupted numerous businesses across the U.S. (except for Hollywood that was barely affected by the depression), “Americans worshipped their film stars especially during this time, as they provided them with an escape from the hardships of their daily lives” (Skaerved 63-65).

Dietrich’s Cultural Impact: The Slacks, Women, and Fashion

Following her arrival in Hollywood, Dietrich was offered several film roles that made her much more popular and successful than before (Higham 139-141). She played the main roles in Morocco in 1930 with Gary Cooper, as well as in Shanghai Express and in Blonde Venus in 1932, and she also starred in numerous popular films throughout the 1930s (Higham 305-306). She was amazing in her movies: a contemporary film critic, Howard Barnes who worked for the New York Herald Tribune wrote about Dietrich’s performance in Shanghai Express that “[i]f anything, she is even better than she was in The Blue Angel” (qtd. in Higham 198). What is more, Dietrich was so successful in Hollywood that, in spite of the economic depression in the 1930s, she became “the third highest-paid person in the nation” (Higham 139). She was a star across America: when she played a role in the western movie Destry Rides Again in 1939 and another role in Seven Sinners in 1940, the audience was charmed by her performances (Higham 194-198).

In Hollywood, however, Dietrich was not only a popular German actress who brought her talent and acting skills from Germany to the American film industry, but as a foreign movie star, she also brought about a cultural change concerning fashion and influenced a vast number of women (Higham 100-101). Soon after her arrival, Dietrich became famous for her unique outfit: she usually appeared in beautiful costumes and she also “insisted on wearing slacks around Hollywood,”—a piece of clothing that was unusual in the United States among women but it became popular primarily through Dietrich (Higham 100) (see also Figure 2 below).


Figure 2. Dietrich wearing the slacks (Skaerved 105). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 105.


Nevertheless, prior to examining Dietrich’s creation of a new fashion style in the U.S. and its impact on American women and men, I would also like to touch upon briefly the most crucial issues as to women and the wearing of slacks as well as the effects of the motion picture industry on fashion at the time Dietrich arrived in America.

In the case of women, the wearing of slacks was initially regarded as an unusual and weird habit that was generally rejected by society (Bill 46-51). Women were first familiarized with “bifurcated outer garments” in the 19th and early 20th century (especially in the period before World War I) but these efforts failed because of a “strong social condemnation and ridicule” (Bill 46). Since “trousers revealed female legs for the first time,” which was deemed to be a strange phenomenon at that time, women who wore slacks were generally considered “barmy,” “indecent,” or “scandalous” (Bill 50-51). In addition, author Katina Bill also points out that women who were dressed in slacks were heavily criticized because

[t]he wearing of trousers signified, or was perceived as signifying, a departure from or rejection of traditional definitions of femininity, in favour of more masculine behaviour. […] people clearly associated bifurcated garments with masculinity. (51)

On the other hand, World War I changed the public’s attitude toward ladies dressed in slacks to some extent: as the war broke out, “many women went into jobs that had been vacated by men” and slacks “were far more practical for many jobs such as the land army and in factories where long skirts could be a danger” (Bill 46-47). Although the number of women who wore slacks slightly grew as a consequence of World War I, these clothes were not popular yet: after the war, “trousers and shorts were associated with a limited range of activities, namely holidays […] and sports, especially cycling, hiking, and riding”10 (Bill 47). In addition, ladies who wore slacks “were not considered acceptable to many people in other more formal situations such as work, for evenings, or shopping and sightseeing in town” (Bill 49). Consequently, despite the fact that by the 1920s, the general aversion to the wearing of slacks lessened, as Bill underlines, “this is not to say that trousers had become common or that they were widely acceptable. […] the number of women who wore shorts or trousers was small” (47).

In contrast, Germany was different from the rest of the world as the wearing of slacks became a rather widespread habit among German women after World War I (Skaerved 30). During the Weimar years (1919-1933), “the Weimar Women” were allowed to lead a relatively “liberal lifestyle” that also had a profound influence on Dietrich’s life, personality, and career (Skaerved 30). Author Malene Sheppard Skaerved describes the life of German women during the Weimar years along these lines:

World War I had deprived the Weimar women of their men, the Republic gave them the vote, advances in medicine provided them with the choice when to have children. Having access to secondary education, the possibility of a career, and their own income, opened up the male world to the Weimar Women. They drove cars, flew aeroplanes, smoked in public and wore trousers and ties. Open marriages allowed both partners sexual freedom hitherto unknown. (30)

Nevertheless, these customs and privileges, including the wearing of slacks, were coming to an end as Hitler came to power and “[t]he Weimar Women were forced back into their traditional roles” (Skaerved 30).

In the United States (and later worldwide), the substantial change in the incidence of the wearing of slacks can be attributed to the movie industry and to Dietrich (Bill 50). In the late 1920s and in the 1930s, “films and filmstars were an important influence on fashion […] and seem to have been particularly influential in the take-up of trousers,” as well (Bill 50). From the early 1930s on, more and more “actresses wore trousers in films and in their private lives” (Bill 50). Furthermore, fashion experts and historians also underline that

[f]ilm fashions were not just visible in the cinema but were also displayed through press photographs of actresses. […] The clothes of filmstars were often featured in magazines, which would recommend that women of a similar physical type to the actress should adopt similar types of clothes. This often included trousers. (Bill 50)

Though several female celebrities began to wear slacks in Hollywood from the early 1930s, “Marlene Dietrich seems to have been a particular influence” (Bill 50). Whenever she appeared in a party, Dietrich “created a sensation” and instantly, “every woman in Hollywood rushed to copy her” (Higham 101). What is more, “[s]ome women actually mentioned her specifically,” so Dietrich’s effect on fashion and on “women” was so significant that ladies instantly wanted to take after Dietrich (Bill 50).

The primary reason for Dietrich’s success in the popularization of slacks was a newly created unique image around her (Abrams 72). With a view to achieving more popularity, Dietrich decided to wear slacks in Hollywood (just as she did so earlier in Germany) not only in private but also during public events and in her movies (Abrams 72-74). In the beginning, Paramount had doubts about Dietrich’s new image because, in Bill’s words, “[t]rousers and shorts are used as symbols of independence, activity, and rationality, but the suggestion is that women achieve these qualities at the expense of their femininity and that women in trousers are unattractive to young men” (Bill 52). But in spite of the studio’s disapproval of Dietrich’s mannish image, the German-born star firmly announced “that she had liked dressing in trousers in Berlin, and she certainly wasn’t going to change” (Higham 100). The following excerpt from an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 2, 1933, epitomizes the situation between Dietrich and the film studio as follows:

The truth about that masculine attire which Marlene Dietrich affects these day is this. She liked wearing that sort of clothes-trousers. Paramount objected. Marlene insisted on trotting about in pants. Finally they gave up. ‘Oh well,’ sighed Paramount, ‘then we’ll make a cult of it—exploit Marlene in men’s clothes.’ (qtd. in Abrams 72)

Hence, Paramount Studios began to promote her European star across the U.S.: they “issued hundreds of picture of Marlene in her new garb, with a daring slogan, “The Woman Even Women Can Adore” ” (qtd. in Higham 101).

In the end, the reaction of the public to Dietrich’s new image was positive (Higham 102). As soon as Dietrich appeared in slacks publicly, she was given “significant media coverage” (Abrams 74). Reporters instantly began to deal with the star and her public image: newspapers incessantly mentioned “Dietrich’s preference for pants in her daily life” (Abrams 72). On January 5, 1933, a Los Angeles-based journalist wrote about the German-born actress that “Marlene Dietrich gave the photo snappers and autograph hounds a real thrill yesterday by appearing at the Brown Derby with long gray flannel trousers, blue sweater, cap to match, dark gray mannish coat and her attorney, Ralph Blum” (qtd. in Abrams 74). Also, two months later, on March 22, an excerpt from an article in the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express portrayed that “Marlene Dietrich created a mild sensation when she arrived at the El Mirador hotel in Palm Springs….. She wore masculine attire for all occasions at the desert resort” (qtd. in Abrams 74). As the above passages from the newspaper articles demonstrate, wherever she appeared in slacks, Dietrich impressed the public: she amazed the people and swept everyone off his feet. In addition to the media, men also loved Dietrich’s new mannish style (Higham 102). One of Dietrich’s close friends, Maurice Chevalier made the assertion that “I told Marlene myself that if she would wear men’s clothes and women’s garments even to the extent of fifty-fifty, I would find it the most attractive and charming idea… [S]he looks wonderful in men’s attire” (qtd. in Abrams 74). Actually, just like the male members of the audience at the premiere of The Blue Angel in Germany, men across the U.S. were also captivated by Dietrich’s legs as well as by her new mannish garment: a journalist, Leonard Hall wrote in one of his articles that “I’d far rather look at Marlene Dietrich’s legs than at the Taj Mahal by moonlight, or even at a fat lady slipping on a banana peel” (qtd. in Higham 102). All in all, Marlene’s innovative and unique style became a smash hit, thus, as Abrams points out, “Paramount’s publicity department framed this “new” Dietrich image as the start of a fashion trend” (74).

Besides the public events, Dietrich’s new image was also promoted via her movies (Hall 10). In this paper, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to Dietrich’s outfit in Seven Sinners. The movie, in which she plays the main role with John Wayne, portrays Dietrich on-screen in a male garment (Hall 10) (see also Figure 3 below).


Figure 3. “Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in Seven Sinners (1940). Dietrich loved suits and uniforms; they made dressing easy and gender a mystery” (Skaerved 109). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 109.


Moreover, historian Linda B. Hall describes Dietrich’s image in the film as follows:

Dietrich, one of the first female Hollywood stars routinely to wear a version of men’s pants in a kind of gender-bending statement, is dressed in clothes that could just as well be worn by a man. In fact, […] her garb is very similar to Wayne’s. She is nevertheless clearly female, given her long, manicured nails, her carefully coiffed blonde hair, her inch-long eyelashes, […]. (8)

Hence, as Figure 3 depicts and as Hall’s description suggests, Dietrich’s male outfit in the film is, actually, a cross-dressing, i.e. she wears clothes that are typically worn by men: trousers, a suit, a tie, and a navy hat, and she also holds a cigarette in her right hand, which is also a rather masculine habit. Thus, Dietrich’s outfit suggests the inversion of gender roles since, as Bill writes, “[t]o wear trousers was to reject femininity and adopt masculinity” (53). Accordingly, being dressed in slacks and in a suit, Dietrich “transgressed from a traditional female role by wearing a garment that was labelled as exclusively male” (Bill 51). In addition, since the portrayal of cross-dressing in films was still an uncommon phenomenon in 1940, Dietrich completely fascinated the audiences via her challenging image in the movie (Hall 10). Thus, the fact that Dietrich “dared to suggest a bisexual quality on screen,” i.e. a thought-provoking image that implies the “sex without gender,” also contributed to her success in Hollywood and to her enormous influence on women and on fashion (Higham 13-14). For instance, when asked by a journalist, a young lady replied that “when [I] bought [my] trousers ‘it was about the time when Marlene Dietrich had been in a film and wore a beautiful tailored suit and I remember seeing pictures of her in it’ ” (qtd. in Bill 50). All in all, as Hall writes concerning Dietrich’s image in Seven Sinners, “[s]he used her sexuality, she dominated the encounter, and she got what she wanted, a hit film in which the reviews focused on her allure” (10).

Consequently, as presented above, Dietrich brought a rather German custom to America: she disregarded the social conventions in the USA concerning the wearing of slacks and introduced a new habit. Dietrich popularized the wearing of slacks among women through her unique and challenging images in the American media and on the screen, and she became an influential person regarding fashion, thus she had an enormous effect on women (Abrams 74). In addition, based on the above mentioned, it can also be concluded that the fact that Dietrich had the courage to go beyond the limits in the U.S. as to the wearing of slacks and the fact that she was able to create a groundbreaking, exclusive, and challenging image around herself were primary reasons, on the one hand, for her enormous success in Hollywood and, on the other hand, for her ability to bring a new style into fashion: the German-born movie star brought about a cultural change in the United States as the wearing of slacks among women came into fashion primarily via Dietrich.

Hard Issues: Dietrich, the Question of Identity, and World War II

Apart from her imperishable impact on fashion and on women, Dietrich was also a talented singer who contributed to the U.S. by singing for the American soldiers during World War II (Skaerved 111). As the consequences of the economic depression hit Germany and Hitler became the dominant political figure, he held “the Jewish industrialists” responsible “for Germany’s plight” (Higham 96). Since Dietrich did not like the Nazis, and she also “felt an intense sympathy for the Jewish people,” when Hitler asked her to come back to Germany and play roles in German movies, Dietrich firmly rejected it (Higham 96-97). Therefore, German political leaders “banned her films,” albeit they “continued to send her invitations to return to the Third Reich,” but Dietrich completely ignored their offers (Skaerved 106). In addition, Dietrich also expressed her hatred toward the Nazis as she was “[singing] American songs with German lyrics on shortwave broadcast to the Third Reich” (Higham 204).

As World War II broke out, Dietrich faced a difficult question: the question of citizenship and identity (Skaerved 90-91). Until the end of the 1930s, Dietrich “refused to take a public stand either for or against Germany in the press” (Skaerved 90). However, in order to protect “her future career in America,” she openly showed her disapproval of Hitler’s Germany (Skaerved 90-91). Thus, having been spent “seven years in the US, she decided to renounce her German passport and apply for American citizenship” (Skaerved 91). As soon as Dietrich took this step, Die Stürmer, which was the “official organ of the Nazi party, ran a photograph of Marlene taking her citizenship oath before a Jewish judge, and” mentioned on its front page that

[t]he German-born film actress Marlene Dietrich spent so many years among Hollywood’s film Jews that she has now become an American citizen. Here we have a picture in which she is receiving her papers in Los Angeles. What the Jewish judge thinks of the formula can be seen from his attitude as he stands in his shirtsleeves. He is taking from Dietrich the oath in which she betrayed her Fatherland. (qtd. in Higham 178)

Whilst the German media portrayed Dietrich as a woman who turned away from her native country, Dietrich gave evidence of “her devotion to her adopted country” and her German identity (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Concerning her feelings and identity, Dietrich made the assertion that

I was born a German, and I shall always remain a German… I had to change my citizenship when Hitler came to power. Otherwise I would not have done it. America took me into her bosom when I no longer had a native country worthy of the name, and I am thankful to her for it…but in my heart I’m German. (qtd. in Skaerved 90)

As the above quotation demonstrates, despite the fact that Dietrich was grateful for her American citizenship, when she lost “a native country worthy of the name,” she still considered herself rather as a German than as an American. What is more, Dietrich also refuted the charges of Der Stürmer as she announced that

[t]o give up your homeland and mother tongue, even when forced to it by circumstance, is an almost unendurable ordeal. Only German, this lovely language, has remained to me as a legacy. I came very close to forgetting it the more securely I settled in America and felt sufficiently at home in English. (qtd. in Skaerved 120)

As Dietrich’s statement above proves, it was extremely hard for her to resign from her “homeland and mother tongue” due to the consequences of World War II and the Nazi Germany, and she also regarded her native, “lovely language” as the only “legacy” that “remained to [her]” from her native land.11 Nevertheless, on June 6, 1939, she obtained “her certificate of citizenship, along with 200 other applicants” (Skaerved 105).

As a result of her aversion to the Nazis, Dietrich was determined to do her bit as a celebrity when the war broke out (Higham 208). As the great number of émigrés who fled to the USA from Germany reported “the full horrors of the Nazi regime,” Dietrich temporarily turned away from the movies with the aim of helping the exiles and “supporting the Allies” (Skaerved 110-111). Thus, Dietrich “sold war bonds by touring nightclubs, singing on the radio, and selling kisses; she would do anything to promote the cause”12 (Skaerved 111). What is more, she also “worked hard helping refugees to settle in their new environment” (Higham 195). Collaborating “with Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder,” Dietrich “set up the Hollywood committee in an attempt to bring refugees out of Germany and soon much of the rest of Europe” (Skaerved 112). She was a dedicated woman on the domestic scene: Dietrich “vouched for visa-seeking immigrants, gave them money and food when they arrived, and, whenever possible, used her connections to find them employment” (Skaerved 112). Actually, as Skaerved writes, Dietrich “was suddenly the touchstone for a disappearing world, the interpreter of America for refugees” (110).

In addition to helping refugees, Dietrich also took part in numerous “social events” in the U.S. with the purpose of showing her support of the war (Higham 208). Dietrich was “working in the Hollywood Canteen landing out soup and serving doughnuts to the soldiers, appearing as a ringmaster in a Los Angeles circus” (Higham 208). Concerning her service in the dining hall, Skaerved also notes that “Dietrich danced, washed the dishes in the kitchen, handed [the draftees] food; she could have been the mother of these boys and she loved every moment of it” (115). What is more, as later Dietrich interrupted her European war tour in the summer of 1944 because of an illness, she was also “forcing herself to give interviews to the newspapers and to” take part in “the Ladies Day war bond rally in Wall Street” (Higham 217).


Figure 4. “Marlene Dietrich playing the Musical Shaw” in “an Irene-designed gold-sequinned dress:” she was admired by the soldiers (Skaerved 121). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 121.


On the other hand, Dietrich also decided “to support the American war effort” on the battlefield (Skaerved 118). In 1944, she joined the United Service Organization (USO) with the purpose of entertaining American soldiers in Europe (Skaerved 120). On April 14, 1944, Dietrich left the United States with the American forces and with “a young comedian from Chicago, Danny Thomas” who also joined USO (Skaerved 121). First, they travelled to Casablanca, Morocco and Algiers, Algeria (Skaerved 121). Dietrich’s performances in the North African countries were amazing: the soldiers admired her, and Dietrich was also keen on entertaining them (Skaerved 122). Skaerved describes Marlene’s European war tour as follows (see also Figure 4 above):

Dietrich’s wartime shows played on sexual innuendo; […]. She performed in an Irene-designed gold-sequinned dress so sheer it gave the impression of shimmering nudity. Sometimes she would start the show by simply extending a bare leg through the curtain. Dietrich finished by playing her Musical Saw, with her dress hiked up, revealing her legs. […] She loved all the attentions, she let ‘her boys’ crowd around her, touch her, talk with her, […] and occasionally even kiss her. She encouraged, loved, comforted, and joked with them, she made a real difference to many thousands of soldiers. She saw her job there as being to improve morale, to send frightened young boys into battle feeling like brave soldiers, and she took her mission very seriously. (121-122)

In addition to the North African countries, Dietrich and Thomas also performed in Italy and in France, and sometimes they were so near the battlefield that they could “feel the effect of the exploding shells” (Skaerved 122). All in all, wherever Dietrich appeared, she was an idolized celebrity among the soldiers (Higham 210-214). Danny Thomas recalled their performance at the Opera House in Algiers along these lines:

These GIs were off on a three-day pass; they were rugged fellows, and not exactly genteel. […] The guys screamed when she came on stage. They weren’t ready for its being Marlene Dietrich! She was every woman in the world they were hungry for rolled into one. Then it happened. A bomb landed, not far away. The power failed. The men all yelled, ‘On with the show!’ But we had no lights. Then […] [t]hose thousands of tough, rough guys flashed all of the flashlights they had, onto the stage at once. We did the show to the flashlights. They didn’t want it to end. And when Marlene took the musical saw […] between her legs and played it, they went completely insane! It was the sexiest thing you ever saw! (qtd. in Higham 210)

As the above quotation reveals, Dietrich was so much admired by the American soldiers that despite the fact that a bomb exploded near them and there was no electricity, the soldiers wanted Dietrich to continue her performance.

Not only was Dietrich a brave and dedicated performer on the frontline, but she also showed solidarity with the soldiers (Higham 212-213). Many times, Dietrich was singing “on rough wooden platforms” that were “set up out on the fields, with only the headlights of jeeps to light her, or in rain under umbrellas” (Higham 213). What is more, during the tours in Europe, Dietrich often spent the night in the “ruins, helped to right an overturned jeep, and sometimes did her shows from the backs of trucks” (Higham 217). As they were touring in Southern Europe, “Marlene’s military escort in Italy and France,” Colonel Robert Armstrong remarked about Dietrich that

she always insisted on eating with the boys instead of the generals; she was a very good sport; […] She never had more than one suitcase for her makeup and her stage costumes. She wore GI uniform: Eisenhower jacket, regulation trousers, boots, and often a helmet […]. She never grumbled, ever. I think she liked being a soldier. One of the boys. (qtd. in Higham 212-213)

As Armstrong revealed, Dietrich sympathized with the soldiers on the battlefield: she was dressed just like the soldiers, and she really wanted to be “One of the boys” (see also Figure 5 below). Dietrich joined the U.S. armed forces with the aim of inspiring and motivating the Allied who also loved her and, in return for the performances, they gave her flowers (Higham 212-213).


Figure 5. Dietrich in a uniform on the battlefield: she is “entertaining the American GIs at Caserta in Italy, 1944” (Skaerved 123). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 123.


Toward the end of the war, as the Allied were preparing to march into Germany, Dietrich joined “General George Patton’s Third Army” (Skaerved 122). Accompanied by “two bodyguards,” Dietrich crossed the border of “Germany in the forward columns of the US Army” (Skaerved 123). “This was her first time in Germany since” she left her homeland after The Blue Angel in 1930 and “she was now, entering as an American citizen” (Skaerved 133). On the other hand, though she was in her homeland again, “Dietrich worried more and more about her” family (Skaerved 123-124). During the war, “[t]he Nazis had punished families for far less an offence than having a relative serving in the enemy army and Berlin” was also destroyed by “terrible bombing raids in recent months” (Skaerved 123-124). Eventually, Dietrich found both her sister and her mother without severe injuries: her sister, Elisabeth, was imprisoned in Belsen concentration camp “because Goebbels wanted to dissuade Marlene from entertaining the United States troops” (Higham 213-216), and on July 1, 1945, when “the Americans entered her hometown,” she also learnt that her mother survived the demolition of the German capital (Skaerved 125).

As World War II came to an end and Dietrich returned to the U.S. in July 1945, she was awarded for her contribution to the United States (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). As she arrived in the harbor of New York City, several hundreds “of GIs yelled and laughed with delight as she shook her leg at them from the pier” (Higham 219). In addition, while she was still in General Patton’s army, Patton (who was the devotee of Dietrich) “gave her the Christmas present she was to value more than any other, a pearl-handled 44-caliber revolver which had belonged to his father and had been captured in the Mexican-American War”13 (Higham 217-218). Moreover, while in France with the army, Dietrich entered Paris “carrying a prize souvenir of a three-yard-long paper-money chain made of forty-two bills from various nations, given to her by United States servicemen” (Higham 217). What is more, as a result of her courageous contribution to the United States by entertaining the American soldiers on the battlefield, in 1947 Dietrich was also given the Medal of Freedom that is “the highest honor the nation could bestow on a civilian” (Phillips 100).

Generally speaking, as Higham writes, “[t]he war was undoubtedly the most important experience of Marlene’s life. […] The masculine side of her nature, as well as the feminine, was satisfied by appearing sexily in a uniform” (227). Moreover, whenever she was not dressed as a soldier, she showed her famous bare legs during her concerts to mesmerize and motivate the soldiers on the battlefield (Skaerved 121-122). In addition, it can also be concluded that, as a German-born entertainer in the U.S. army, Dietrich’s motivation and encouragement of the American soldiers was, in all probability, also a contributory factor for the victory of the Allied in World War II. On the other hand, Dietrich also had mixed feelings toward Germany: she felt a heartbreaking pain because of the war and “the changes in her native country” (Higham 218). Higham who personally interviewed Dietrich recalls that

Marlene’s attitude towards Germany, she told me, was ambiguous in those postwar years. She regretted the loss of her fatherland, the land which had existed before Hitler had destroyed German culture; and she remained unflinching in her condemnation of those Germans who had covertly supported Hitler […]. In interviews, she refused to exonerate Germany from its guilt. Yet she said to me she loved Germany, the Germany of Goethe and Schiller and Heine; […] Although, […] she found postwar German literature, art, and music a grievous disappointment […] she could not find it in her heart to hate the country. She was, despite her American citizenship, still profoundly German. (267-268)

Ironically, the Germans had the same feelings toward her: when she visited the country in 1960 to do a show in Berlin, Dietrich experienced “a mixed reaction of adulation and” hatred (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Marlene’s “patriotic act was perceived by many in her native land as treason (ignoring the fact that Dietrich was anti-Nazi, not anti-German)” (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Therefore, some of the Germans “attacked her for her criticism of Germany,” and “blamed her for deserting her country” (Higham 264). What is more, during “some performances, tomatoes and eggs were thrown at the stage, and there were bomb threats,” as well (Higham 264). On the other hand, “the majority of the audiences now welcomed her, because she had represented a Free Germany in exile” (Higham 268). In addition, Dietrich’s “opposition to fascism endeared her to Germans who had turned against Nazism, and to the new generation of Germans who had grown up in the starvation and misery of war” (Higham 268). Nevertheless, as a result of personal insults, she was not willing “to return to Germany until after her death” (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.).

German Culture and Hollywood: Dietrich in A Foreign Affair

After World War II, Dietrich stayed in Europe for a while before she moved back to the United States (Higham 223-226). In France, she had a leading role in Martin Roumagnac (1946) but the movie was not so successful (Higham 224-226). Thus, in 1947, she decided to return to Hollywood: she showed her talent in numerous successful American movies among others in Golden Earrings (1947), A Foreign Affair (1948), Rancho Notorious (1952), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) (Higham 306). Though the German-born star demonstrated her extraordinary acting skills in several American movies, this section seeks to pay attention to Dietrich’s role in A Foreign Affair: my aim is to examine the movie from a historical-cultural perspective with a special focus on Dietrich.

The movie tells the story of three people in post-war Germany. Dietrich, as one of the main characters in the film, plays the role of a European lady, the role of Erika von Schlütow who is a “high-ranking former Nazi turned nightclub singer” (Riley n.pag.). Besides, “Captain Pringle (John Lund) loves [the] ex-Nazi, Erika,” while “American officials, including Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a conservative congresswoman from Iowa have come to investigate the morale of the US troops in Germany” (Skaerved 132). “Playing a nightclub singer, Dietrich sings ‘Illusions’, ‘Black Market’, and ‘Ruins in Berlin’, written and accompanied by Frederick Hollander at the piano”14 (Skaerved 132).

A Foreign Affair evokes Dietrich’s hometown after World War II. As the movie is set in Berlin in 1947, it portrays the condition of the German capital two years after the war (Loewenstein and Tatlock 432). Before the shooting began, the director and co-writer of the movie, Billy Wilder visited Berlin with the purpose of taking pictures of the ruined German capital15 (Loewenstein and Tatlock 432). The post-war landscape plays an essential role throughout the entire movie since, as Skaerved writes, “[b]omb craters, shuttered buildings and the rubble of a destroyed Germany, served as the background for this comedy” (132). Concerning the “choice of the Berlin setting,” Wilder made the assertion in an interview that

[w]ell, I know America and I know Berlin. It seemed a good idea to fuse my familiarity with both places… I lived in Berlin, I worked as a newspaper reporter there and I’m crazy about the place. I saw the devastation when I was in the army and A Foreign Affair was partly reminiscent. (qtd. in Sinyard and Turner 80)

As the above quotation demonstrates, the setting of the movie is based primarily on Wilder’s European experiences: since he was familiar with both the United States and Berlin, he decided to mix both his American and European experiences in the movie. Accordingly, specific German locations with historical references appear in the film like “the black market at the Brandenburg Gate and the GIs flirting with” young German ladies “near the rutted Tiergarten (zoo)” (Phillips 102).

In connection with the setting, I would also like to highlight the opening scene of the movie. A Foreign Affair “opens impressively with the aerial shots of the bombed-out city of Berlin”16 (Phillips 104). At the very beginning of the movie, we can see the direct effects of the war on the German capital from a bird’s-eye view: the demolished buildings without windows, the empty streets, as well as an entirely uninhabited and destroyed landscape. In fact, the post-war landscape along with the destruction and the ruins reveal the state of mind of the contemporary Berliners since, as Phillips writes, “[t]he devastation reflects the desolate lives of the German civilians, who inhabit a world of disillusionment and cynicism” (104). As for Dietrich, she had similar feelings when she moved into Berlin with the U.S. army as an entertainer: as Skaerved notes, Dietrich “walked the streets, happily to be home, listening to Berliner voices and bewailing the destruction of her city” (126).

In addition to the setting and the opening scene of the movie, Marlene Dietrich’s portrayal of Erika also contributes to the uniqueness of the film (Sinyard and Turner 87). Billy Wilder deliberately chose Dietrich to play Erika: they had already met in Germany earlier thus, as Phillips mentions, when “he was writing the script, Wilder had Marlene Dietrich in mind for the role of Erika, the sultry chanteuse at the Club Lorelei and the mistress of Captain Pringle” (Phillips 99). The collaboration of the two film talents “began in December 1947, when Wilder went to Berlin to photograph the physical ruins of ” the German capital (Loewenstein and Tatlock 432). Following his visit in Germany, Wilder “traveled to Paris to” offer Dietrich the role of Erika (Loewenstein and Tatlock 432). However, she was initially loath to accept the part since Erika is hanging out “with Nazis, and Dietrich was afraid that her longtime anti-Nazi stance would be tarnished by playing the role” (Phillips 99). Eventually, since Dietrich grew up in Berlin and she knew the city and the Berliners well, Wilder “cleverly persuaded her that no American actress could play Erika convincingly” (Phillips 99). Consequently, as we can see in the case of A Foreign Affair, a true German woman from Berlin, i.e. Dietrich, has the role of a German lady who lives in Berlin, i.e. Erika. In addition, the other reason for Wilder’s decision to select “Dietrich to play the key role of Erika” was Marlene’s personality and unique acting skills (Phillips 100). In an interview, Wilder himself acknowledged that

[Dietrich’s] appearance in the film helped to give the movie a more authentic atmosphere. There was a natural similarity between Lola, the café singer that she portrayed in von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel [Der blaue Engel, 1930], and the Berlin nightclub singer she played in my film. (qtd. in Phillips 100)

Thus, as Wilder admitted, Dietrich’s innate talent, uniqueness, and outstanding acting skills that she had already proven earlier in Germany in The Blue Angel were also primary factors for choosing her for the role of Erika.

Dietrich’s portrayal of Erika is also important from a historical-cultural perspective. As we can see in the film, Erika was in connection with the Nazi party: when Frost shows a tape recording to Pringle to disclose Erika’s past, we can see Erika taking part in a Nazi social gathering where Hitler is also present. What is more, the recording also shows that the German dictator stoops and kisses Erika’s hand. Accordingly, in view of Dietrich’s real-life distaste for Hitler and the Nazism, Erika, ironically, does exactly the opposite in the movie: she enjoys being with the Nazi dictator. Concerning this scene, the two film critics, Joseph Loewenstein and Lynne Tatlock also point out that “[t]he antifascist Dietrich, who allegedly turned down Hitler’s proposal that she become his mistress, is reincarnated as the Nazi opportunist Erika von Schlütow” (433). In addition to the above mentioned scene, I would also like to highlight Dietrich’s last scene in the movie:

Erika is […] being used by the American military police as bait for the trap to snare her jealous, most-wanted Nazi lover. He eventually takes the bait and shows up at the Lorelei in disguise, looking for Erika. But the military police are lying in wait for him, and he is killed in an exchange of gunfire. Erika is slated for a labor camp because she is tainted by her Nazi affiliations. Unrepentant to the last, she gives a seductive wink to the two young MPs assigned to escort her to prison. She hikes up her skirt to her knees and asks coyly, “Is it still raining? If there are any puddles, you’ll carry me, won’t you, boys?” (Phillips 105)

In the above described scene, Erika uses her charm and allure with a view to trying to avoid arrest and incarceration, and actually, we can also presume “that the incorrigible Erika will most likely slip away from the two bedazzled soldiers and never see the inside of the prison camp” (Phillips 105-106). Concerning Erika’s last scene in the movie, a notable film historian, Robert Dassanowsky-Harris also underlines that “ “Erika is the film’s most problematic character,” […] because she has learned to cultivate “the survival spirit.” She is a worldly-wise and war-weary individual who knows how to survive by making the best of a bad situation” (qtd. in Phillips 105).

Besides the portrayal of Erika, “Dietrich’s songs” are also central to the movie from a historical-cultural point of view (Phillips 100). The three “songs in A Foreign Affair were composed by Frederick Hollander, the German composer who had written the songs for The Blue Angel”—and this, actually, “made the connection between Dietrich’s two roles even closer”17 (Phillips 100). Moreover, in this romantic comedy, the melodies also recall the post-war situation in Germany: Hollander’s “songs are sardonic and mockingly sentimental,” but at the same time, they also “evoke the disenchanted mood of a devastated, defeated people” (Phillips 101). Sinyard and Turner describe “the night-club scenes of A Foreign Affair” where Erika sings her songs as follows (see also Figure 6 below):

Spotlight, with the composer himself at the piano, Erika performs the Friedrich Hollander songs in a smoke-filled atmosphere reeking of the decadent attraction of The Blue Angel: […] The songs – “Black Market”, “Illusions” and “Amidst the Ruins of Berlin” – speak with silky precision of the world-weary disenchantment of the Berliners, yet also have a saving irony and toughness. In Dietrich’s Erika is contained all the decadence of the pre-war era in Germany and all the defiance of its post-war survivors. (87)

Thus, as the two film experts suggest, “Dietrich’s Erika” along with her melodies are the essence of the movie: while the sarcastic melodies reflect the “disenchantment of the Berliners,” Erika simultaneously embodies Germany’s past and present, i.e. she connects “the pre-war era in Germany” and the “post-war” condition of the German nation (Sinyard and Turner 87).


Figure 6. The scene from the movie where, accompanied with the band, Erika is singing one of her songs. Also, as it can be seen in the picture, the pianist (Hollander) is looking at Dietrich while playing the piano, and as Sinyard and Turner pointed out above, this scene is very similar to the scene from The Blue Angel (87), (cf. Figure 1 above). Source: “A great Berlin movie: A Foreign Affair.” I Heart Berlin. September 6, 2015. Web. December 28, 2016.


All in all, “A Foreign Affair is a film made by emigrants” from the German-speaking world (“A great Berlin movie” n.pag.), and the teamwork of the three European film talents contributed to an original and an especially realistic movie in Hollywood since, as Phillips mentions,

given the collaboration of Wilder, Dietrich, and Hollander, the picture has such an authentic atmosphere of Berlin that one expects to see the logo of Ufa, not Paramount, on the movie. Wilder replied that it was really Dietrich who brought the authentic atmosphere of Berlin to the movie: “Marlene is Berlin incarnate!” (101)

Consequently, Dietrich is the indispensable part of this movie: without Dietrich’s contribution to the film, A Foreign Affair could not tell the storyline faithfully and the film itself would not be reliable (Phillips 101). In fact, film experts generally maintain that “Jean Arthur and John Lund might have talent, but Miss Dietrich has charisma: and the allusiveness of her screen presence gives her an aura” (Sinyard and Turner 87).

To conclude this section, I would also like to mention the reactions to the movie. A Foreign Affair was severely condemned by the U.S. government since the “occupation forces appear undisciplined and ill-behaved” in the film and “some of the American GIs were depicted as taking advantage of the citizenry of Berlin whenever they got the chance” (Phillips 106). What is more, “The Motion Picture Export Association of America” that was in charge of deciding “whether or not American films could be exhibited in Germany” also prohibited “A Foreign Affair from being released in Germany”18 (Phillips 106). They declared that

[o]ur initial disappointment with the picture later escalated to outrage and disgust, […]. We could not excuse a director who played the ruins for laughs and cast Military Government officers as comics. […] the picture [is] crude and superficial. . . . Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy. (qtd. in Phillips 106)

However, apart from the authorities, A Foreign Affair received “mostly favorable reviews” (Phillips 106-107). Critics and the media emphasized that “even in a landscape of ruins, “Billy Wilder sets off a firework display of witty dialogue” ” (qtd. in Phillips 107). On the other hand, some columnists also remarked “that it was too soon after the war to joke about a tragedy of this magnitude” (Phillips 107). Nevertheless, A Foreign Affair “was a personal triumph for Marlene Dietrich” (Phillips 107). Reviews generally pointed out that the German-born star “gives a commendable performance, revealing a real sympathy for her character” (Skaerved 132). What is more, Dietrich’s performance in A Foreign Affair is commended even today since as Sinyard and Turner underscore, “Marlene Dietrich’s performance carries enormous force in the screen, the quintessence of German expressionistic decadence – tempting, dangerous, unstaunched, unquenchable […], it is fascinating – like the film” (87-88).

Dietrich and the Stage: A Shift from the Movies to Music

Before bringing this paper to an end, it is also vital to see and examine Dietrich’s life and career after A Foreign Affair. Though in the upcoming years, she had leading roles in numerous American films, Dietrich’s film career was on the way to decline (Skaerved 138). Since “a new generation of younger actresses was getting the starring roles” from the 1950s, as Skaerved writes, “Dietrich transformed herself from screen goddess to movie legend” (138). She had her last film role in Paris When It Sizzles in 1964 (Higham 306). However, while her movie career was fading away, Dietrich turned toward the stage and singing: between 1954 and 1975, she did amazing and successful shows around the world including “in the United States, Scandinavia, France, Germany, Russia, South America, South Africa, Australia, Holland, Japan” (Higham 308). Wherever she appeared, the audience was so fascinated by her performance that she often received “floral tribute” after the shows19 (Skaerved 145-150).

Besides her natural talent, Dietrich’s success on stage was primarily based on “her own group of musicians,” on her unique and provocative outfit, as well as on her experiences from the movie industries in Berlin and in Hollywood (Higham 247-275). In order to achieve success, Dietrich carefully chose her band and the people she worked with (Higham 247-275). As Dietrich began her tour around the world, she collaborated with the American artist, Burt Bacharach who was in charge of “reworking and rearranging her repertoire to fit the limitations of her voice” (Skaerved 145). Concerning their cooperation, Dietrich mentioned in an interview that

[It] was the luckiest break in my professional life, […] I had dropped into a world about which I knew nothing, and I had suddenly found a teacher. With the force of a volcano erupting, Bacharach reshaped my songs and changed my act into a real show. Later it was to become a first-class ‘one-woman’s show.’ (qtd. in Skaerved 145)

Consequently, as Dietrich admitted, her partnership with Bacharach was a major factor for her success on stage because Bacharach helped her launch her musical career.

The second major reason for Dietrich’s success on stage was her unique female apparel as well as her male garment (Higham 249). She used two types of attire on stage: she always began her show in her “softest and most feminine clothes, announcing that this was the part of her performance she did for men” (Higham 249). As Skaerved writes, “[h]er shimmering dresses were reworked versions of her wartime costumes, giving the illusion of a perfectly-formed nude figure untouched by age. She wrapped herself in fur, feathers, chiffon, beads, rhinestones—any effect that would dazzle her audience” (140) (see also Figure 7 below).


Figure 7. Marlene in her amazing dress just before her show: “Dietrich glittered in sequins and feathers at her Las Vegas performance,” and her beautiful legs captivated the audience, as well (Skaerved 147). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 147.


Through her consciously chosen clothing, Dietrich created an amazing and unique image on stage that mesmerized the audience (Higham 248). Moreover, Higham also adds that

[Dietrich] provided a mirage of pure beauty, not only in her figure, miraculously preserved in her fifties, the breasts high and firm, […] the body supple and athletic, […] the legs as boldly provocative as ever—not only in these physical things, but in the beauty of her musicianship, […] the love that she poured out to her public. […] She was the image of pre-Hitler Berlin, with an American touch: the epitome of efficiency and self-mocking wit, tinged with cool affection. (248)

In contrast, the second half of the show focused on her mannish side: “accompanied by a major drumroll,” Dietrich “suddenly appeared in a tuxedo, bow tie, and tall top hat, saying that this was “for the girls” ” (Higham 249) (see also Figure 8 below).


Figure 8. Dietrich wearing “her own white tie and tails” while she is smoking—she is dressed like a man (Skaerved 68). Source: Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing, 2003. Print. p. 68.


To captivate the audience, Dietrich “kicked her legs high” and “spread her legs on a chair” (Higham 249). After the performance in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, one of Dietrich’s admirers, John Marven told to a reporter that

[i]t was unbelievable. I never saw anything like it. The audience went completely mad. When she came on, there was a tremendous scream as though from one voice. She started to sing a number, and the screaming went on and on so deafeningly that she had to stop and start again. […] At the very end, when she was in her man’s outfit, when she did her high kicks, and sang, as a man, ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,’ everybody started to cry; you could hear these sobs of hundreds of people in the dark. (qtd. in Higham 264)

As Marven pointed out, the entire audience was enthralled by Dietrich’s stage performances, and especially “her man’s outfit” made Dietrich extremely successful: she instantly became an admired celebrity; she was an idol for “hundreds of people.”

In addition to her unique and challenging stage appearance, Dietrich’s former experiences also contributed to her success (Higham 247-249). During her career in the German movie industry as well as in Hollywood, Dietrich learnt a lot from von Sternberg about the “lighting technique:” by means of this knowledge, Dietrich demanded that the “lighting and sound men” set the “spotlight” with “the microphones” so that it illuminated her magnetism, charm, and apparel20 (Higham 247-249). As “William Blezard, Marlene’s conductor in later years” underscored, “her lighting technique was based on that laid down by von Sternberg: a traveling spotlight which moved with her face at approximately forty-five degrees from above the line of her hair, augmented by special lights on the stage” (qtd. in Higham 249).

On the other hand, Dietrich’s stage career also began to decline in the meantime (Skaerved 149-153). From the 1950s on, “Dietrich’s health had begun to deteriorate” and she had alcohol problems, as well (Skaerved 149-153). Moreover, she also suffered from the loss of her close pals like Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, or Gérard Philipe—“these tragedies hurt her grievously” (Higham 271). What is more, her popular legs also needed to be operated (Skaerved 152). However, in spite of medical problems, she remained an influential person regarding “fashion” since as Skaerved points out,

[t]he famous trousers now became a necessity for hiding Dietrich’s still legendary, but swollen, legs. Whether wearing jeans, leather, or cotton outfits, she could easily pretend to be dedicated follower of fashion. For a more feminine look, she did her misshapen legs and bandages underneath long dresses or in thigh-length boots and short mini-skirts, which of course then became fashionable. (153)

Eventually, as a result of medical problems and difficulties in her personal life, Dietrich decided to retire: she left Hollywood, moved to Paris, France and turned away from the public (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). After a long and successful international stardom and an extraordinary career that began in the German film industry and came to an end in Hollywood, in the last decade of her life, she lived mostly alone in her home in Paris (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Following her death on May 6, 1992, she was laid to rest in Berlin: she “had come home last” (Skaerved 166-167). Also, a decade later, in 2002, “Dietrich was posthumously made Honorary Citizen of Berlin” (Skaerved 168).


As a unique and versatile artist, Marlene Dietrich had an amazing and legendary international career, and she also became one of the most influential women of the 20th century. As this paper wished to demonstrate, the major development in Hollywood in the first decades of the 20th century entailed the need of the European film talents and innovations and it also contributed to the allurement of “the Exiles” in the 1930s (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.). At the same time, with a strong desire to become a prominent actress, Marlene Dietrich’s outstanding acting skills and amazing performance in The Blue Angel in 1930 attracted the attention of the American film studios, thus she eventually received an invitation from Hollywood (Higham 88-96).

Following her arrival in the United States, the German-born star contributed to the American motion picture industry as well as to U.S. society and culture in many ways. First, Dietrich transferred her extraordinary talent, performing skills, experiences, and artistry from the German film industry to Hollywood by which she culturally enriched the American film industry (Higham 92-96). Second, as a pioneer concerning fashion, Dietrich influenced a vast number of women as she popularized a rather German tradition in the USA, namely the wearing of slacks (Higham 100-101). Third, Dietrich also supported the United States in World War II: on the one hand, with the intention of showing her disapproval of the Nazi Germany, she was helping refugees from Europe settle in the U.S. and integrate into U.S. society, and on the other hand, as a dedicated entertainer, Dietrich inspired and encouraged the draftees at home and the U.S. soldiers on the battlefield (Skaerved 110-118). Fourth, as woman with German cultural background in Hollywood, Dietrich played the role of a German lady, Erika von Schlütow, in A Foreign Affair by which she contributed not only to the success of the movie but also to its credibility (Sinyard and Turner 87-88). Fifth, though her career was fading away, Dietrich gave marvelous performances on stage by which she left an indelible imprint on the history of American music (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.).

In sum, the 20th century multi-talented German-born icon, Marlene Dietrich left a lasting legacy in the American entertainment industry as well as in American society and culture. In fact, via her overall contribution to the United States, Dietrich became the indispensable part of American culture and civilization.


Works Cited

  • Abrams, Brett L. “Latitude in Mass-Produced Culture’s Capital: New Women and Other Players in Hollywood,1920-1941.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 25, 2 (2004), 65-95.
  • A Foreign Affair (1948). (dir. Billy Wilder)
  • “A great Berlin movie: A Foreign Affair.” I Heart Berlin. September 6, 2015. Web. December 28, 2016. <http://www.iheartberlin.de/2013/07/03/a-great-berlin-movie-a-foreign-affair/
  • Allen, Minoo. “Screen Queen: Marlene Dietrich.” Classic Movie Hub. June 10, 2013.Web. December 3, 2016. <http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/screen-queen-marlene-dietrich/
  • Asper, Helmut G. and Jan-Christopher Horak. “Three Smart Guys: How a Few Penniless German Émigrés Saved Universal Studios.” Film History, 11, 2 (1999), 134-153.
  • “Babelsberg Studios.” Babelsberg Studios. Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press. n.d. Web. June 3, 2015. <http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/babelsberg_studios>
  • Bill, Katina. “Attitudes Towards Women’s Trousers: Britain in the 1930s.” Journal of Design History, 6, 1 (1993), 45-54.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in “The Blue Angel” ” New German Critique, 89, (2003), 9-31.
  • “Germans in Hollywood: The Three Waves of Hollywood Immigration.” The German Way & More. n.d. Web. May 25, 2015. <http://www.german-way.com/history-and-culture/germany/cinema-in-germany/germans-in-hollywood/>
  • Hall, Linda B. “Images of Women and Power.” Pacific Historical Review, 77, 1 (2008), 1-18.
  • Higham, Charles. 1977. Marlene: the Life of Marlene Dietrich. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. Print.
  • Loewenstein, Joseph and Lynne Tatlock. “The Marshall Plan at the Movies: Marlene Dietrich and Her Incarnations.” The German Quarterly, 65, 3/4 (1992), 429-442.
  • “Marlene Dietrich.” The German Way & More. n.d. Web. December 29, 2016. <http://www.german-way.com/notable-people/featured-bios/marlene-dietrich/>
  • Phillips, Gene D. 2010. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Riley, Christina. “Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair: Marlene Dietrich’s Star Persona and American Interventionist Strategies in Postwar Berlin.” Bright Lights Film Journal. April 30, 2012. Web. May 27, 2015. <http://brightlightsfilm.com/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair-marlene-dietrichs-star-persona-and-american-interventionist-strategies-in-postwar-berlin/>
  • Sinyard, Neil and Adrian Turner. 1979. Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder. Surrey, Great Britain: BCW Publishing Limited. Print.
  • Skaerved, Malene Sheppard. 2003. Dietrich. London: Haus Publishing. Print.
  • Wagner, Geoffrey. “ “The Blue Angel”: A Reconsideration.” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, 6, 1 (1951), 48-53.



1 Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) was born in Vienna, he became a successful director in Europe, and following his arrival in the USA with Dietrich, he worked for Paramount Pictures (Skaerved 45-46). In addition, in the U.S., he also became “a great pictorial stylist and brought a new perspective to the art of [filmmaking]:” he was regarded “both a genius and a menace to the film business by Hollywood” (Skaerved 45).

2 Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was born “into a Jewish family” in Sucha, Austria-Hungary (today it belongs to Poland), and as Hitler became the leader of Germany, Wilder had no option but to leave the continent: he also brought his experiences and skills as a newspaper reporter and screenwriter from Germany and France to Hollywood (Phillips 1-12).

3 Despite the fact that these film people were talented and famous in Europe, many of them “ended up unemployed or underemployed” in Hollywood (“Germans in Hollywood” n.pag.).

4 Dietrich “invented the name “Marlene” as a telescoping of Marie Magdalene” (Higham 48).

5 Max Reinhardt was a theater director and actor who also emigrated from Europe to the USA because of World War II (Skaerved 24).

6 Von Sternberg followed strict rules: he “demanded that everything should be perfect. His tyrannical perfectionism would later be notorious in Hollywood. He drove his cast and crew till he achieved his vision, doing dozens of takes, sometimes keeping everyone on set 20 hours a day” (Skaerved 58).

7 Also, Dietrich “was a perfectionist:” she continuously insisted on doing things properly and always paid attention to the details (Higham 275). What is more, “Dietrich and von Sternberg nearly destroyed each other in their quest for perfection” (Skaerved 61).

8 Despite the fact that Dietrich initially hesitated to move to the U.S., her husband, Rudolf Sieber managed to persuade her to accept the offer from Hollywood (Skaerved 58-59). In addition, one of Dietrich’s close friends revealed later in an interview that “Marlene would never have gone to Hollywood if UFA [the German film company] had held her to a contract. But UFA had not held her: the studio executives did not feel she was worth keeping,” thus she left Germany (Higham 98).

9 As a result of personal insults in her homeland in 1960 (it will be mentioned later in the essay), after she retired, Dietrich moved to France to spend the rest of her life there (“Marlene Dietrich” n.pag.). Following Dietrich’s death in Paris in 1992, a commemoration was held in the French capital “attended by 1,500 people, including her family, friends, and war veterans” (Skaerved 166-167). Dietrich’s coffin was covered both by the French and “the American flag,” then she was laid to rest in Berlin “under the German flag” (Skaerved 167). In addition, as for history, by 1992, “[t]he Wall, which had divided Berlin for nearly 20 years, had fallen three years earlier, uniting the city once more as Dietrich had known it” (Skaerved 167).

10 In the case of sport activities, “safety and comfort [were] the main [reasons] why women adopted such clothes,” whilst in the case of vacationing, women wore slacks mostly “at the seaside, traditionally a place where social etiquette [was] more relaxed,” but in general, slacks “[were] considered unacceptable or indecent elsewhere” (Bill 48-49).

11 Concerning Dietrich’s above statement, Malene Sheppard Skaerved also points out that “Dietrich’s nostalgia for the Germany of her childhood, for the Weimar years, remained with her always and she saw it as a personal insult that her own country was now endeavouring to destroy everything in which she believed” (120).

12 On the other hand, Dietrich “was torn by guilt as she collected the money, which would help bomber planes reduce her beloved country to rubble, and perhaps kill her” relatives “and friends who remained in Germany” (Skaerved 111-112).

13 However, following her arrival in the USA after the war, Dietrich was not allowed to keep the priceless gun “because of the prohibition of the imported firearms” (Higham 218).

14 Hollander (1892-1976) was a “German songwriter” who “grew up in Berlin where he studied music; he emigrated to the USA in 1934;” he composed “songs for more than 150 films from 1929 on” (Skaerved 53).

15 Wilder stayed “three weeks in Berlin” with a view to “photographing actual locations, but most of the film was shot at Paramount studios in Hollywood” (Phillips 101).

16 When he visited Germany, “Wilder filmed the movie’s opening shots of Berlin from a plane” (Phillips 101-102).

17 Hollander “also supplied the background music for the film” (Phillips 104).

18 The movie “was first shown in West Germany as a successful television special in 1977, and only hit the German big screen in 1991, when it was a smash hit” (Phillips 106).

19 As mentioned earlier, except for her visit and performance in 1960 in Germany (Higham 264).

20 During the rehearsals, Dietrich often “[lost] her temper—when the microphones were not exactly in the position she asked for them to be, or when the spot hadn’t fallen just the way she wanted it” (Higham 275).