Whilst ordering it off the TCM site I grabbed their pre-code set of Song of Songs (1933) and This is the Night (1932, reviewed here). And fine as these films are they are not half as sophisticated as the JVS. The Night's a fine example of pre-code Paramount fluffery: Cary Grant's in a minor role as a studly javelin thrower 'competing' (if that is the word) for Thelma Todd against Roland Young, who's brought Lili Damita along as a beard. But Song of Songs, Paramount's first attempt to ween Dietrich away from JVS, is a bit too old-fashioned, with Dietrich's naive country virgin conveniently enamored by Solomon's poem "Song of Songs" which she recites under her breath like a mantra. Dig the kinky S/M aspects of this verse (he's basically saying he wants to make gold bit and bridle and ride his love around the room)
I have compared thee, o my love
to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets, thy neck with beads
We will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver.
In charge of making the circlets for this doll-faced horsey is a smug stud sculptor (Brian Aherne) who falls in love with her as she poses nude for him in his drafty garrett. We never even learn if she's getting paid for all this nude shivering or is just expected to die of pneumonia for him while he teases her about being cold. Whatever she may be earning it's certainly not enough for putting up with his Pygmalion-like impudence. Aherne berates her like a child, as does a conniving alcoholic aunt (Alison Skipworth) who pimps her out for sacks of Jamaican rum to Aherne's lecherous sponsor (Lionel Atwill). With all this Dickensian exploitation you'd think Dietrich's first starring role was Heidi instead of the Blue Angel. Bitch! Dietrich will do her own exploiting, danke!
Songs could have been a true pre-coder if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the bucolic / provincial morality play silent film era (as per above), with Vaseline trees and day-for-night skies, and virgins in white puffy dresses cavorting daintily amid the willows. A predictable mix of Svengali, Pygmalion, and Camille-style moral conventions, the film even goes so far as to make Lionel Atwill twirl his Prussian mustache lustfully like he's Erich Von Stroheim circa Foolish Wives (1922).
You can guess the rest: Atwill convinces Aherne to abandon Marlene after first deflowering her so Atwill can step in, marry her despite her fallen status and teach her to be a baroness. Meanwhile the statue is left in the garret; its erect nipples jut accusingly through the sack cloth dust cover. It doesn't matter anymore, for Atwill has spirited home the real thing, and begins the usual post-wedding 'preparation,' even smiling while she cries helplessly in the other room. Later she 'adjusts' to life at the chateau. She learns to speak French, play the piano, and sing! She falls! She rises! She almost dies in a fire. She's almost shot by Atwill in a fit of jealous pique over her half-pint riding instructor. And on and on, galloping hither and tither in ways D.W. Griffith invented in the 1910s and then abandoned as too trite and old-fashioned... in the fuckin' 20s!
But surprise, Dietrich does some of her best singing: there's a genuinely touching and tranquil version of "Heideroslein" and later a smoky "Johnny." In her final act comes a really good cathartic cry, wherein you can feel all her skeeved trauma from working with Von Sternberg come pouring out at last. Atwill is, meta-mirror-wise, the stand-in for JVS in the scheme of the film (the Aherne would probably be Gary Cooper, or Mercedes de Acosta). Here are sides of her, at last, you just don't find elsewhere. In between her reinvention as a brassy saloon girl in westerns and her earlier majesty, there are some weird but intriguing feints towards other personae and this in Songs we have something rather unique, a woman who doesn't just end up with the right guy at the end of all her travails, she actually seems to mature.
As Dietrich famously said "in Europe sex is a fact. In America, an obsession." For real Germans like Von Sternberg and Dietrich sex is just an extension of taking off a glove or blowing a noisemaker. Along with this 'fact' is the realization that desire exists primarily as an absence, a dream that can't come true by its own definition. Sex with Mamoulian isn't so ephemeral and abstract, but a real trauma--instead of a delicious absence it's a suffocating presence. Just compare the gang-imploding whim of lust that gets everyone killed in Mamoulian's City Streets or Song's big scenes of renouncement and horror vs. the cool of Sternberg lines like "it took more than one man... to change my name to Shanghai... Lily."
Sternberg's sex-death equation is most clearly displayed in his ubiquitous cabal of lounging courtesan extras. Sooner or later, Dietrich's ingenues always share a dressing room with them, or run into a few by the bar. For Mamoulian, a Russian, these fallen women are to be pitied and rescued, victims of a corrupt system (though they still lounge impressively in their one scene, below). Which view is the most 'compassionate'? I would argue Von Sternberg's since he gives the ladies credit and allows them to revel in their persona of mystery and allure. Mamoulian would drag them out to the street and admonish them like Annie dragging the 'trying to pass' Sarah Jane out of the club in Imitation of Life.
Worlds away from Mamoulian's sexophobic compassion, Von Sternberg cheerfully ignores the bucolic in Dishonored, preferring to focus all his style and shadow on decadent gambling dens and brothels. His exteriors are inevitably fogged-in or rain-soaked, snow-covered or bomb-blasted. His style is truly decadent as opposed to bowing towards any trite and tedious 'moral center.' JVS hates moral centers! His contempt for Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus makes that otherwise fleet footed film limp lopsided, but when examined next to the critique of the Way Down East- type silent era morality play it becomes more understandable. One might even say that without films like Song of Songs the Blonde Venuses seem rather cold and negative. But with the bucolic small- town morality plays to look good against, the JVS cynicism sparkles.
And better still, when there is no moral center at all, JVS really shines, and Dishonored is one of his best in that regard, with one of the best endings in all cinema. It's on Godard's ten favorite American film list... and that's of all time! And a big part of that appeal is probably the end, a harsh but poetic scene that plays out like Kubrick's Paths of Glory trench diggers accidentally tunneled into a high class Austrian brothel.
A loose re-telling of the popular Mata Hari tale (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor) In Dishonored we have Dietrich as a weary Austrian war widow living at a Viennese brothel, whose unflappable cool and loyalty leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27. First she uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths.'
The role of female James Bond fits Marlene well. She and her Russian op counterpart Victor McLagen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLagen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, Mclagen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape should either fall into the others' clutches, like Adam West's Batman and Julie Newmar's Catwoman!
Dietrich's true love, it seems, is always death, which is why she makes such a very good spy. In using the system's rigid laws to arrange an ideal ending for yourself --one that your own survival instincts and the rigid expectations of society usually deny you --you've really made the grade and filled the holes of Albert Hall. Even in the walk to the firing squad area her only thoughts are making sure her hair looks good and her lipstick is on straight.
This makes sense, as the very first scene of the film is a woman being taken out of Dietrich's brothel on a stretcher, a victim of self-inflicted gas poisoning, an all-too-common occurrence for that lonesome profession, it's implied. Dietrich watches the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist prom limo. But her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for.
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff,
let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice;
for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
'Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards;
for our vineyards are in blossom.'
Until the day breathes, and the shadows flee away,
turn, my beloved,
and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart
upon the mountains of spices.(more)
Comely countenances have nothing to do with it, dovey. When one makes the clefts and coverts into moral lessons they are as the blight that spoils the vineyards. Let the foxes take what grapes they may no matter how high on the vine. Give Bette Davis a box on which to jump that she may the grapes devour. Let the image breathe like a nitrate fire, freed from moral weight to bleed the wine of massive proof. In the senseless spilling / the cup remains full / the nitrate deep and lasting in its transient grace, not burning at all / except in focused flickering / on the wall. Take your maidens and your Vaseline lens and exeunt; I'll stay here in the dark and foxy box the shadow of your scornful wince.