Marlene Dietrich (part I)

My day job in Berlin is writing books and – as some of you may know – I am working on a biography of this city, telling its story by recounting the lives of some of its key artists. It’s no surprise that among those I’ve chosen is Marlene Dietrich, one of the greatest movie actresses and performers of the twentieth century. She was born just down the road from my apartment, in Schöneberg in 1901. I had the privilege of working on her last film in 1978. As I am now writing my book’s Dietrich chapter, I want to share with you – in two parts — the story of that remarkable two days shoot.

In the late Seventies I was assistant to David Hemmings, the English actor who had starred in Antonioni’s Blow-Up as well as dozens of other films. Hemmings was offered the chance to direct a picture in Berlin – the most expensive movie ever then made in Germany — and he asked me to come along with him. I took one look at the cast list and agreed.

The picture was called Just a Gigolo. It told the story of a young Prussian officer after the defeat of the First World War. In an attempt to regain his lost honour, the officer joined the ranks of the handsome, aristocratic Eden Hotel gigolos. The officer was to be played by David Bowie.

Marlene Dietrich was considering appearing in the film, playing the Madame of the Eden Bar. At the time she was 77 years old, a recluse, living in isolation in Paris. Seventeen years had passed since her last appearance in a film. Fifty years since von Sternberg had cast her in The Blue Angel. It took the producer six months to convince her to play the part for us. Every time we telephoned her apartment, a woman would breath into the receiver. ‘This is the maid. Madame is lunching in Versailles.’ The maid was Dietrich, of course.

We were told that she was too busy, that she was writing her memoirs and couldn’t leave Paris. In truth she was frightened of being unable to live up to her legend, frightened of the toll of years. But in the end the chance to sing on screen one of the songs from her cabaret days proved too enticing. She agreed, on condition that we brought Berlin to her; German technicians, two tons of equipment and the complete set of the Eden Hotel.

The old woman who mounted the steps of the suburban Parisian studio brought back no memories of Shanghai Express. She wore a tired denim suit and hid by the door. Her lips quivered as we were introduced to her. She refused to take off her dark glasses. The make-up artist moved to her side, and spirited her away into the dressing room.

Two hours passed before she reappeared, wearing a wide brim hat and deep veil over her face. In costume she began to find her confidence, the clothes helping to ease her into the role. She walked onto the set without assistance, sat down and let her long skirt — split to the thigh — slip open. A woman of half her age would have been delighted with those legs. As the crew tried not to stare, a smile fleeted across her face.

Before the song a few lines of dialogue had to be shot. In the scene Dietrich recruits Bowie as a gigolo. But Bowie was not on the set. He wasn’t even in France. His part of the scene — the ‘reverse’ — had already been shot in Berlin. The two actors would come together only in the editing room. Hemmings stood in for Bowie, feeding Dietrich her cues. But she was not pleased. Bowie was one of the reasons she had agreed to play the part.

‘Do they pay you extra for this crap?’ she snapped at Hemmings. ‘We learnt this old trick from Mack Sennett.’

The anger swelled her confidence, rather than undermining it. Raymond Bernard, her pianist, helped, filling the pauses between shots by playing Falling in Love Again. Dietrich stood by the piano and listened. Then insisted on its retuning, for the third time that day. ‘Otherwise – you know what people are,’ she said, ‘they will be sure to think it’s me.’

The lights were checked, again. Exposure and focus set, again. As she would only sing once, we decided to run two cameras. I was asked to operate the second one. We took our positions, settled ourselves, waited for, ‘Quiet please. Turn over. Sound rolling. Speed. Mark it. Scene 503 take 1. And action…’