Marlene Dietrich, a siren of the screen in early Hollywood. Dietrich was originally from Germany where she performed on the stage and in silent films in the 1920s. She was “discovered” by Josef Von Sternberg and cast in his film The Blue Angel (1930). The success of the film led to her contract with Paramount Pictures and a partnership on screen with Josef Von Sternberg for six films: Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, the last in 1935 with The Devil Is A Woman. Dietrich was the quintessential femme fatale, a title that her films easily bestowed. With her sultry looks, come hither eyes, and a gaze that puts a viewer in a trance, Dietrich is the movie star.
As one of her most unpopular films, The Devil Is A Woman made the perfect choice by The Turner Classic Movie Festival as part of the Discoveries section as many people have never seen the film. A newly restored 35mm print was loaned to the festival by the Museum of Modern Art. Katie Trainor of MoMa introduced the film and gave a brief history of the restoration. The only reason the film is available is because of Marlene Dietrich herself. Having always loved the movie, and saying it was the most favorite part she ever played, Dietrich had a print of the film in her personal vault. Paramount Pictures had destroyed the master shortly after release when Spain threatened to ban all Paramount movies because of the (so they felt) negative depiction of the Spanish Police Guard. Dietrich gave her print to the Museum for safe-keeping and preservation before her death in 1992. At the same time it was pulled from worldwide distribution, von Sternberg lost his contract with the studio, and it was not screened again until 1959. Mildly put, this movie was scandalous at the time of release and while the scandalous nature of the story may come across today as more humorous it is still an excellent story, with a leading lady you desire, despise, and can’t help but become memorized with. This film, that was ripe with controversy over the actions of the main character Concha, the depiction of the Spanish army, and the scandal that went on behind the scenes with Dietrich and von Sternberg–rumor has it the relationship between Concha and Don Pasqual mimics her off-screen love affair with von Sternberg that ended after filming–, would have been lost forever if not for the woman herself. Luckily, for the full house of patrons at the festival it was available for viewing and it looked absolutely wonderful.
Set in Spain during Carnivale, the film centers around a woman, Concha (Marlene Dietrich). The story itself is not told from her point of view, instead it is her never-lover but constant provider Don Pasqual who tells the tale of his history with Concha to his young friend in an attempt to stop his infatuation with her before he makes the same mistakes. For Concha is a temptress who will unabashedly make you fall in love with her, take your money or anything else she needs, and then disappear. In modern terms, she is a hustler, and she uses every inch of her body to her full advantage without ever giving “it” away. As Don Pasqual tells of his encounters with Concha, and the growing love he had for her for many years you come to realize that Concha may not be the most honorable of women. This is what makes Concha such an incredible amount of fun, and the film is extremely humorous to watch as she manipulates Don Pasqual into doing her bidding time and time again. At the same time Concha is very much an empty-shell of a character because it is not her story to tell. It is her ambiguity, and the cold cruelness towards men, that makes Concha incredibly interesting if not shallow and without depth. When Don turns his back on her finally in the third act Concha is given the opportunity to tell her own story as the flashbacks end and we return to the present day. In the here and now it is Concha who is making the decisions and whether she will return to Don Pasqual and lead a respectable life or keep on with her temptress ways. The ending is an enigma, von Sternberg has you believing Concha is headed in one direction, making for a clean and tidy ending to an otherwise shameful display for a female character. But one will never know what exactly she does do for the camera fades to black before any decision can actually be made for certain, continuing the enigma that was and is Concha from the beginning.
Josef von Sternberg has been praised for the beauty of his films and The Devil Is A Woman is no exception. The close-ups of Dietrich are crisp, clean and perfectly framed; the diffused lighting on her face making her beauty even more striking. There is a great focus on the body in this film and discussions on voyeurism are impossible to avoid. The “cinema activates what psychoanalytic critics refer to as the “scopic drive” or voyeurism, a primary pleasure obtained from looking at things. In the cinema, the scopic drive provides viewers with voyeuristic pleasure derived from looking at characters and situations on screen.”¹ Marlene Dietrich was made for the voyeur and von Sternberg knew how to use every angle of the lens, position of her body, and her hypnotic gaze to trigger the viewer’s gaze turning her into a visual fetish. When you mix the fetishization of her body with the racy character of Concha it is no wonder an audience in 1935 had difficulty accepting the film.
The Devil Is A Woman is a film to be cherished out of film history. It keeps with von Sternberg’s arbitrary change of mind that is common in his films, and Concha personifies this unique approach to his film’s perfectly. It is also important due to the great talent of Marlene Dietrich, a star of the screen whose work should be preserved and shown as often as possible. Most of all, The Devil Is A Woman portrays how films of it’s era incited debate and discourse. This is a movie that challenged societal norms and touched upon the freedom to produce art in art’s form witout interference or interruption. The latter being one fight von Sternberg lost sadly, but thankfully the picture was completed and saved by Marlene Dietrich, making her more of a star in film history than she already is remembered as being.
¹Movies and Meaning, Stephen Prince, Third Edition 2004