The extraordinary creature born Marie Magdalene Dietrich was a belated Christmas present to the world some 114 years ago today.
Here we catch her at one of her mid-career heights, as the slyly seductive chanteuse Erika von Schlütow in Billy Wilder's wildly underappreciated 1948 picture A Foreign Affair. The film presents her as a kind of alternate-universe version of herself: what if Dietrich hadn't gone to Hollywood with von Sternberg in 1930, but had stayed behind in Berlin and gotten herself entangled in the era's dark sociopolitical goings-on? What if, rather than a movie goddess and genuine war heroine, she was a broken-down Nazi sympathizer reduced to singing in an underground nightclub, scrabbling on the margins of what's left of German show business? She makes it all seem chillingly possible.
She's enormously assisted by Wilder's great gift to her: a trio of songs by her original glorifier, Friedrich Hollaender, whose magnificent "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt" (aka "Falling in Love Again") from The Blue Angel helped create the Dietrich ideal that the star so gleefully toys with here. The three numbers - "Illusions," "Black Market" (seen here), and "The Ruins of Berlin" are perfectly matched to the film's mise-en-scène; angular, shifting, slippery, and profoundly cynical, they paint a pitiless picture of post-war Berlin in all its despair, corruption, and destruction. Even the seemingly optimistic lyric of the last song, its trees in bloom and talk of sweet tomorrows, is fatally (and clearly intentionally) undercut by the clashing keys of the banged-out piano accompaniment (the pianist, by the bye, is Hollaender himself).
A Foreign Affair presents a Dietrich more Continental, worldly, earthy than she'd been in many years. She's a survivor, hard-boiled and calculating, and as such the perfect foil for Jean Arthur's homespun American girl (and, for the sake of the plot, congresswoman). If anything, Arthur's gee-shucks act seems just a shade broad next to Dietrich's consummate underplaying, and it doesn't help that leading man John Lund leans more toward nightclub oiliness than Yankee vigor. The settings - ruins, dimly lit and menacing, help; so, too, does Dietrich's look. Her makeup is harsh and masklike, and the film makes much of the effort that Erika has to go through to find it in the wrecked city; the gowns, elegant but somehow just a little off, seem salvaged, altered, almost parodies of those associated with the star. There's a reason for that - they're Dietrich's own, by Irene (Edith Head is credited for Arthur's costumes), and had seen hard service on the star's wartime USO tours. Familiar, they subtly remind the audience of the distance between good Marlene and bad-girl von Schlütow, even as they convincingly could have been salvaged or bargained-for in the ruins.
As she usually managed to do in film (if not, alas, in life), Dietrich manages the perfect fade-out as A Foreign Affair closes. She's under arrest, headed for a labor camp under the watchful eye of an MP. She leans over to straighten a stocking; the senior officer present takes one look at the expression on her guard's face and quickly assigns a second MP - to watch the first one. Erika may have lost one round to Jean Arthur (with Lund the dubious prize), but we leave with more than a subtle hint that she's not going to be down long...