Marlene Dietrich (part II)

Last week I began the story of Marlene Dietrich final screen appearance (see below). I had the privilege of working with her on that movie and now conclude the story of that remarkable two days shoot.

Dietrich – who was 77 years old — had arrived at the suburban Paris studio looking frail. Sixteen years had passed since she had last stood on a sound stage. Now she had agreed to make a small but key cameo appearance in Just a Gigolo, at the time the most expensive German film ever made.

As director David Hemmings later said, when she walked onto the set ‘she looked like my Granny, like your Granny, like everybody’s Granny if Granny wore a jeans pantsuit, a Dutch-boy wig and cap, and huge dark glasses.’ She was to sing in the film and, as she would only do so once, we decided to run two cameras. I was the director’s assistant and asked to operate the second camera. When the time came to shoot, we took our positions, settled ourselves, waited for…. ‘Quiet please. Turn over. Sound rolling. Speed. Mark it. Scene 503 take 1. And action…’

I looked through the lens, and my eyes deceived me. There was no old woman standing before me. Dietrich’s veil and a soft focus filter had transformed her. The key light caught her eyes and I saw the star of Blonde Venus and Touch of Evil, the legendary Dietrich.

Dietrich sang in a song from her Kurfürstendamm days, Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo. The cameras purred. Celluloid glided through the magazine. She sang in English, ‘There will come a day/Youth will pass away/Then what will they say about me?’

In all it lasted maybe three minutes, but the intimacy stayed with us. After the cameras had cut and the Nagra recorder stopped rolling, we remained silent. Then burst into spontaneous applause. Dietrich smiled once more and offered to sing for us again – now in her own language.

Afterwards the photographer shot stills until he started to shake. Dietrich then called the crew around her. She asked who were German. And who were Berliners. She asked after Ku’damm and Unter der Linden. She talked of her fear of losing her language, and of returning home. She said, ‘There are many people who imagine I betrayed Germany during the war. … They forget I was never – never – against Germany. I was against the Nazis. Even the press seems not to comprehend that. You can’t know how it feels. You’re going home (to Germany) tomorrow and I can’t. I lost my country, and I lost my language. No one who hasn’t gone through that can know what I feel.’
Then she gathered herself and left the set, the last set that she would ever perform on, the crew standing in a line to the door, applauding.

Dietrich shed years through the lens, defying time — for the last time. But it wasn’t a regaining of youth that made her a star that day. Nor her beauty or a well-pitched note or even her legs (still magnificent). It was a bare-ing, an ability to strip away the barriers and defences that the rest of us hide behind. On the set she let us see her inner self.

Just a Gigolo failed in the box office, which was only just as the film’s producers had used Dietrich to authenticate a derivative project. Yet for the crew – German and foreign alike — the experience remains one of the most memorable and authentic of our cinematic lives.

There’s a photograph of us with Dietrich in a back issue of Paris Match (as well as The Sunday Times Magazine and Newsweek and…). If you look carefully you can just see me, back row, fifth from the left. The second before the shutter snapped, Ingrid Windisch, the German producer’s assistant pushed in front of me. She’d taken a pique against me and went on later to remove my name from the credits. Not that it mattered. I’m still standing there behind Dietrich, basking — like the other ordinary souls — in the glory of a great Berlin artist.