Lust in translation
“Distribute This!” is a space intended to showcase works that have not yet had the opportunity to find their audience. Not generally distributed at the time of writing, these are films that deserve to be seen and theaters full of viewers are waiting for them.
Something about 1929 in Europe stimulated a half-dozen masterworks of erotic cinema, films that steamed the spectacles of contemporary viewers. Clearly they provided needed distraction from the economic instability that would sweep across the continent before the year’s end, but perhaps imagination was also making its last stand. In this final year of silent cinema, filmmakers could still extend and intensify emotions, before words and regional accents would force the audience into a literal understanding of the images, while a prosaic conception of time would accelerate plots. If the brain is our most erogenous organ, then the hush of intimacy in which the last silent films perfected their dream-like images was an ideal medium for nourishing the senses.
Best known from this eruption of eros are G. W. Pabst’s twin paeans to Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box (left) and Diary of a Lost Girl, both finally restored to their original glory (and readily available on DVD). Full of shadows and textured light, Pabst’s expressionist style created a sensuous, suggestive atmosphere that envelops his star, embodying unselfconscious sexuality while the society around her bristles with moral hypocrisy. In these two films, she moves from virgin to mistress to streetwalker, enduring rape, reform school, pregnancy and brothels. Less committed to a social critique, the recently revived Piccadilly, by the still underrated E. A. Dupont, turned a nightclub melodrama into a splendid celebration of Anna May Wong as the object of carnal obsession.
Still in the same year, but known much less are Joe May’s steamy Asphalt, which pits libido against law as a jewel thief seduces a virtuous young policeman, and Gustav Machaty’s Erotikon, which gives equal weight to the heroine’s sexual needs as the hero’s (the director, who apprenticed with Stroheim in Hollywood, even conveys the erotic potential of a blood transfusion as just another way to exchange bodily fluids).1 With no star personalities to revive interest, these two films are rarely sighted or even cited. In terms of popular availability, however, the most surprising omission is the one title that features the most enduring icon of them all at the very moment she first reveals her power on the screen: Marlene Dietrich in Kurt Bernhardt’s stylishly directed The Woman Men Yearn For (Die Frau, nach der Man sich sehnt) .
Several years before Joseph Von Sternberg swathed her in leathers and feathers for his dances of passion and power in Shanghai Express and The Devil Is a Woman, and mere months before donning the silk panties and top hat of The Blue Angel, Dietrich here gave a performance that looks completely recognizable in terms of her later films. Without question, her charisma is in full flower, suggesting that she brought rather more to Sternberg than is usually acknowledged. Dietrich works her trademark stillness, economy and intensity, with all the centrality of a star, and from her striking entrance, she is photographed like a star, yet Bernhardt’s silent film was forgotten in the rush to talkies and the excitement of The Blue Angel, and Marlene herself was content to forget it.
A rhapsodic whirl of infatuation, the triangle plot ostensibly takes place in France, but it conveys a dreamlike feeling of its characters drifting together by chance. As Henry Leblanc, a young industrialist pressured into a strategic marriage with the daughter of a wealthy tycoon, the only way to stave off bankruptcy of his family’s steel business, the tall, lanky Uno Henning2 combines strength with an appealing vulnerability. This Swedish actor has an air of boyishness, underscored by an early scene depicting him as a mama’s boy, implying that in some sense he is not completed as a man, as virginal as his bride, the better to show him being blindsided by eros.
Boarding the train that will take the couple on their honeymoon to the Riviera, Henry suddenly sees a window shade lifted, revealing Dietrich gazing at him with a look that changes both their lives. Like twin searchlights crossing in the night sky, they lock eyes, unable to break their charged look, and unable to move or speak. This is not a seduction, yet the love-with-a-stranger tension between them seems as intimate as the sex act itself. It also provides the key to convince us that he would renounce all his obligations, deserting his bride on their very wedding night. Finally her male companion enters the frame, breaking the spell as he pulls down the shade. Who is she? Who is the man who accompanies her? What is this couple’s dynamic? As her suspicious companion Karoff, the monocled Fritz Kortner3 acts both possessive and possessed.
Bernhardt freshens this hardly original plot with a kind of impetuous energy and visual confidence, thanks to the supple camerawork and voluptuous lighting of Curt Courant (pioneer cinematographer of Hitchcock’s original Man Who Knew Too Much, he used one of the first handheld cameras to shoot Renoir’s La Bête humaine). Scene after scene feels as if Courant’s lens had caught just the right shot, as vapor frosts the train window framing Dietrich’s face, or plumes of smoke trail from the rushing momentum of the train. When sunlight moves slowly up the limbs of the sleeping Dietrich, it’s like the light is caressing her body (and recalls a similar camera movement moving up the legs of Lillian Gish in Hearts of the World, where one can practically hear D. W. Griffith’s heavy breathing in the silence).
Exchanging more burning glances with the errant bridegroom as the wind ruffles her hair, Dietrich’s Stasha begs him to help her escape from her dangerous companion. Henry now decisively leaps into the whirlpool, abandoning his frustrated bride in her honeymoon bed to pursue the couple to the Grand-Hotel, a mountain resort, just in time to ring in the New Year. Stasha conceives a plan for them to escape from Karoff at midnight, in the tumult of the dance floor at the hotel’s Art Deco nightclub. With lights flickering and strobing, and confetti and streamers flying through the crowd (richly suggestive of how Sternberg would introduce Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman), Karoff gets increasingly drunk until he finally shouts “I am a murderer!” The revelers all laugh at such a joke, but Karoff foils the couple’s escape.
After Henry spends one hour alone with Stasha, waking in a post-coital glow, she confesses that Karoff is not her husband but rather the lover who killed her actual husband, and they are in fact on the run from the police. At first recoiling, Henry then pushes her body to the edge of the frame, but then succumbs and pulls her back. Disaster looms with a high overhead shot that shows the police investigators arriving. They arrest Karoff, but in an unguarded moment he pulls out his revolver and turns to Stasha. With a nearly imperceptible nod of assent, exactly like Harry Lime sanctioning his end in The Third Man, she permits him to pull the trigger. She dies in the arms of Henry, who then ends his nightmare when he says that “I’m going home.” With his newly awakened libido and his eyes opened to the dangers of letting lust lead the way, the hero has evolved to a higher stage and returns as an adult, though the film remains silent about his chances to resume his privileged existence.
Unlike Pabst in Pandora’s Box, Bernhardt does not relate this sentimental education in passion to the mounting social and economic chaos of the Weimar period. Nor is he out to skewer bourgeois hypocrisy, the way Pabst preserves his Lulu’s fundamental innocence by showing her as the victim of male weaknesses.Neither angel nor devil, Dietrich’s Stasha is more a catalyst for men’s desires. If anything, she seems positively magnanimous, generously acceding to the needs of both men. With none of the insolence encouraged by Von Sternberg, without the flirtatious behaviors of her later films, Dietrich’s performance seems a model of modern underplaying, fully and delicately nuanced. Her passion seems instinctual, more like the weary empathy of Garbo, inseparable from her being.
It’s tempting to relate the shadowy visuals and tragic resolution to the American film noir, with Stasha anticipating the American femme fatale, yet the sexual politics are different. Like Pabst’s Lulu (but unlike American cinema’s predatory noir females), Stasha ignores money and seeks no economic goal. The film offers neither psychology nor sociology to explain her, but she seems seductive almost by accident, as ready to fall in love as the besotted Henry (or Karoff before him, or her husband before both of them).
Present-day viewers accustomed to the full frontal slip and slide of physical acts in Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy or Catherine Breillat’s Romance will find nothing overtly scandalous here, yet Bernhardt’s film pulses with a single-minded intensity. As the two men circle each other warily, all the while orbiting the woman, no one has time to smile or eat or yawn. The older man keeps trying to envelop her body, to hold and caress it, to enclose her in the frame, while the younger one hovers in a suspended state of longing, waiting to consummate the deal.
If Bernhardt ultimately fails to build a tragic momentum, not quite steering the proceedings to leap into the cathartic (like Polanski in Knife in the Water), he makes clear that the triangle cannot be a tenable way of life. According to social ideology of the monogamous couple, intensity cannot be shared three ways, so tragedy becomes inevitable, all the more when the structure is built on murder. Yet passion proves to be no more lasting than breath on glass or frost on the window, fated to vanish.
Why is this film not known? Dietrich, ever the devoted caretaker of her own image, always downplayed her pre-Sternberg career, dismissing her seventeen films in six years as little more than extra work. Some were supporting roles, it’s true, extensions of the kind of impudent flapper roles she was playing in Berlin revues. With the spotlight concentrated on the male stars, she had little opportunity to make an impact, whether in the rather lackluster Café Elektric where bad boy Willi Forst seduces frizzy-haired hot heiress Dietrich or in the urbane I Kiss Your Hand, Madame where she plays no more than a charming foil for comic Harry Liedtke. As the only woman in Maurice Tourneur’s atmospheric Ship of Lost Men, a fog-shrouded but unofficial variant on Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, she fared even worse from miscasting as a wide-eyed ingenue.
In constructing her personal mythology, Dietrich wanted nothing to distract from the glory of her seven collaborations with Von Sternberg. No doubt the more age-conscious she became, the more loath she was to date herself by associations with the patently old-fashioned era of nickolodeons. Who could blame her? In 1950, playing the glamorous musical comedy star in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, how could she welcome reminders that her first screen performance dated back to the year of James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon and John Ford’s The Face On the Barroom Floor?
Equally, the disappointing public reception of Bernhardt’s film, partly blamed on criticisms published by the disgruntled author of the source novel, apparently plunged Dietrich into a period of depression (even though she enjoyed better treatment from the critics than Louise Brooks got for Pandora’s Box). Still, Dietrich biographer Stephen Bach suggests that the star temporarily withdrew following the double disappointment of first losing the role of Lulu to Brooks and then making so little headway in her potentially star-making part as Stasha: “[I]t must have been crushing to give a subtly modulated performance and be dismissed for it”4
A few films later, Dietrich finally won instant and full-fledged stardom in The Blue Angel. Von Sternberg put her through her paces as Lola-Lola, while on the adjoining soundstage at UFA, Bernhardt was directing Conrad Veidt in the studio’s first one-hundred percent sound film, The Last Company (Die letzte Kompanie) . In 1933 Bernhardt was arrested by the Gestapo but managed to escape to France, then established his own production firm, British Unity Pictures. Following Dietrich to Hollywood,5 he found work at Warner Brothers, where his expressionist style and sensitive showcasing of actors proved suitable for star-driven melodramas. His name now changed to Curtis Bernhardt, he steered Bette Davis through good twin/evil twin dramatics (A Stolen Life, 1946), Barbara Stanwyck through an underrated and thoughtful melodrama about the emotional liberation of a war widow (My Reputation, 1946), and Joan Crawford through the throes of mental illness (Possessed, 1947). In James Agee’s estimation, the latter was “filmed with unusual imaginativeness and force…The film is also uncommonly well acted,” all remarks which could apply equally to the Dietrich film.6
Another Bette Davis vehicle, Payment On Demand (1951), employing inventive experiments with time and theatrical effects, was the director’s own favorite for its pointed critique of materialism and divorce in the heartland. Some consider The Blue Veil (1951), the long unavailable frustrated-mother weepie (Distribute That!) to be Bernhardt’s peak, but his work also encompassed a resourceful technicolor musical (Happy-Go-Lucky, 1943), a sharp returning-veteran noir (High Wall, 1947), and one of MGM’s more intelligent costume pictures (Beau Brummel, 1954). When the studio reconceived The Merry Widow (1952) as a vehicle for Lana Turner, Bernhardt produced nothing to rival Lubitsch’s definitive masterpiece, but this colorful production is better than it sounds, although the same cannot be said about his attempt to guide Rita Hayworth through the 3-D hokum of Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). His last authentic hit came with the opera-cum-polio tearjerker Interrupted Melody (1955), no threat to Douglas Sirk in this territory but still a surprisingly tough and effective drama.
In the English-language market, The Woman Men Yearn For hardly exists. Originally released in the U.S. as Three Loves, the film was then re-released in 1931 (with a synchronized musical score) to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Dietrich. A full half-century later, a restoration was shown in Bologna in 1999, and then appeared at film festivals in Berlin and San Francisco. Sources of record list the film’s running time as anything between 75 and 107 minutes. Only a soiled-looking VHS print with untranslated German intertitles seems to be available, and that is sans any musical score at all. (Hint: the febrile intensity of Scriabin’s piano études matches and even enhances the film’s feverish quality). With over fifty books already devoted to Marlene Dietrich, it’s time that this pivotal film gets the release it deserves and a measure of attention.
- In Europe later films such as Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté, Buñuel’s L’Age d’or, Max Ophüls’s Liebelei, and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante carried the torch for erotic cinema, until the flames sputtered and finally extinguished with the rise of fascist family values in Nazi-era German cinema. [↩]
- Uno Henning’s (left) best remembered role came in 1927 as the heroine’s Bolshevik lover in Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney. He worked for Scandinavian masters Victor Sjöström and Gustaf Molander, and in the 1960s appeared in several television productions directed by Ingmar Bergman. [↩]
- Fritz Kortner was a distinguished Austrian stage actor who had already appeared in films by Murnau and Paul Leni. All in 1929, he also played Lulu’s wealthy lover in Pandora’s Box and starred opposite Dietrich again in The Ship of Lost Men. Hollywood used him in occasional character roles, notably in Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express, but back in Germany he concentrated on directing both films and plays. [↩]
- Stephen Bach, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992, p. 94. [↩]
- When Bernhardt sought Von Sternberg’s help to establish himself in Hollywood, he was understandably insulted when the older man asked, “You want to come to Hollywood, Mr. Bernhardt? My only question is, as what?” Recounted in Curtis Bernhardt: a Director’s Guild of America Oral History, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1986, p. 39. [↩]
- James Agee, Agee On Film, New York: McDowell Obolensky, 1958, p. 373 [↩]