Passionate attitudes, suspended time: Thomas Julier's Dietrich

Almost at the end of Thomas Julier’s film, Dietrich, we find showcased a sequence of iconic close-up shots from the set of films his eponymous star made with Joseph von Sternberg in the 1930s. At first, as if imploring an invisible divinity, she tearfully looks up twice, pulling back her hair with both hands to expose her immaculate face. Tears elegantly gliding down along her nose correspond to the sparkle of her glittering sleeve. Then, as she slowly bends forward into a different pose of supplication, her hair falls forward as well while her face disappears from our sight. The next shot captures her in silent prayer. A wide shadow has fallen across her face and most of her body, leaving exposed to a beam of light only the jeweled hands, which she urgently presses together in entreatment. Her screen presence is so powerful in that it reveals itself not despite but because of an impaired visibility. Then, seamlessly, Thomas Julier’s montage moves to a different close-up of his star. Gazing at us through a net veil, her head adorned with an imperial bride’s headdress, her eyes are wide open. Initially she looks about furtively while her soft breathing threatens to extinguish the candle she is holding. An array of attitudes begin to flicker across her face – curiosity and awe, devout modesty, agitated excitement, a pious appeal to a higher force, and, finally, quiet resignation to a fate to which she can do nothing but abandon herself. As the camera moves into a mesmerizing extreme close-up, we get the impression that the contours of her face bleed into the fragile veil covering it, as though she were becoming one with the very surface of the image. 

If the sound of a tolling bell holds together these two scenes taken from separate films, the soundtrack now falls silent and, after the fade out, a protracted black frame introduces yet another close-up, in which the star, less adorned than in the other two scenes, keeps readjusting not her pose but the focus of her look. With her mouth twitching ever so slightly, she unabashedly faces us, just shy of gazing directly into the camera. Once more, she is performing a state of expectation fraught with intense uncertainty. Something is about to happen but neither she nor we know what. In this play of light and shadow, of fluttering veils and flickering candles, everything is held in suspension. The significance of the interim is registered only by what comes to pass on her amazing face. Extracted from the diegesis of the films, these close-ups become a study of quiet, intense passion. And yet, as intimate as the gaze we are privy to purports to be, Dietrich knows she is being observed. Given that Thomas Julier has chosen not only to delete the reverse-shots found in the actual editing of von Sternberg’s films, but also to replace these with protracted black frames, the person to whom the staging is directed is not another character in the story. Instead, we are in the position of the one to whom she so adroitly addresses her poses. As Dietrich plays to the camera, she appeals only to us, drawing us into her gaze, compelling us to take note and partake in a performance she is self-consciously putting on display. And as we are repeatedly faced with a black screen, the effect of her performance lingers on in our mind.

These iconic scenes – thus the wager of Thomas Julier’s Dietrich – reflect on the very status of the gaze so seminally interwoven with the cultural survival of her celebrity. By extracting Marlene Dietrich from the film narratives, and thus liberating her from the roles von Sternberg scripted for her, Julier also releases her gaze, opening it up to a new re-experience, and with it to new readings. This radical reduction not only intensifies our appreciation of her art. Rather, the aesthetic effect of Dietrich is predicated on the claim that her allure changes when her performance is not contained by the narrative flow of a melodramatic story. With her as the sole focus of our attention, the story she tells is a different one. Indeed, foregrounded in the series of pathos gestures which, by re-editing the Dietrich-Sternberg oeuvre, Julier puts on display, is the autonomy of this celebrity. We see only Dietrich, in all her chatoyant ambivalence. Her gestures and poses, her movement as well as the few pieces of dialog that Julier has chosen to include, are all treated as figures of speech. What – taken as a series of film fragments – they offer up is a visual lexicon revolving around the risky act of coming to a decision and acting upon it. Although now and then a musical fragment is included, most of the film is silent, not only to recall her own beginnings as a star in the silent cinema of Weimar Germany. The absence of a soundtrack normally employed to enhance the film narrative further calls upon us to focus exclusively on her skill as screen actress. With nothing to distract us, we are compelled to revisit what have become her iconic passionate attitutes. We are called upon to look again.

Of course, from the start, the special relation von Sternberg had to this actress was inscribed by a rich tension between role and performer. Whether she plays a night club singer in Blue Angel or Morocco, a girl from the gutter turned spy in Dishonored, a seductive woman of the world in Shanghai Express, a devoted mother in Blond Venus, a powerful female sovereign in The Scarlet Empress, or a confidence artist in The Devil is a Woman – the figure who emerges on Hollywood's silver screen from 1930 onwards is always Marlene Dietrich. Von Sternberg, who unabashedly conceived of himself as her Svengali, insisted that Marlene was perfectly aware of the fact that she was his creation. And yet if, to achieve this oblique self-portrait, von Sternberg was the master of her celluloid appearance, this not only made him dependent on her. Rather, the facial expressions that give bodily shape to his aesthetic ideal, the timbre of her voice with which she intones the roles he created for her are also specifically her own. Even though a unique conversation existed between the two, such that she never looked or sounded quite the same in the films she was to make with other directors – at the time and later – her cultural survival transcends this collaboration. In other words, if living on as an embodied image, suspended between visibility and a visual fading, between past and the future, was to be her destiny, this has subsequently proven to be very much her own, singular self-expression. 

Significantly, Thomas Julier has used only her surname as title for his remix of what was initially considered to be a joint effort. Detached from its original articulation, we discover, the icon “Dietrich” can be appropriated and rescripted to uncover something already latent in the original films. Far from being only the passive bearer of a gaze directed at her, she not only holds her pose but emerges as the one who is in command of what are always passionate attitudes assumed for effect. Whether she stages an elaborate masquerade, using feathers, sparkling jewels, glittering masks, and lace veils to tease the viewer, or whether the artifice is seemingly reduced when she is cast as a destitute, even desperate woman, there is always an enticing elegance. In one sequence we see her repeatedly looking up at someone or looking for someone, uncertain, excited, pleased, self-assured, collected, smitten, resolved (30.35- 31.25). In what, because of the absence of reverse shots, look like screen tests, she sometimes even appears a bit bored. In all cases, however, even as she performs to perfection the moods ask from her by her director, she signals her distance to these roles. Julier’s remix thus not only draws out her proximity to the art objects surrounding her, and as such to the way she embodies symbolist photography. He also turns our visual pleasure against us. Catching us voyeuristically spying on her, his Dietrich lets us know that she knows. 

At the same time, by fragmenting and reassembling scenes from von Sternberg's films into a new visual series, Julier draws out a narrative of his own, namely one of contained anxiety. We have a suspended time. We see her waiting, playing cards, tapping her fingers in anticipation, preparing for an appearance and calculating the effect she will have, approaching someone ready for a confrontation. Sometimes the focus is almost exclusively on her eyes, and when these move back and forth to an extreme, she looks almost like an automaton. Yet if, thoughout, the focus is on her gaze, then to foreground that she is always looking, always gaging the world and her position in it, even while knowing that she is being watched. This world is, indeed, entirely her stage. And yet, even as she seduces, often with only a minimal albeit calculated effort, she is not merely playing to the visual pleasure of the other. Thomas Julier’s remix makes clear: She is always making herself present to us, compelling us to share the interim, as she moves between light and shadow, entrance and exist. 

At the same time, if, in the narrative Dietrich unfolds, she is always ready to act upon the moment, then because she seems to know from the start that this particular celluloid diva, willing to test her luck, to go to the limit, was fated. The few dialog fragments Julier has pointedly included attest to this fragility: “I’m not afraid of life although I’m not afraid of death either,” “I wont need any help,” “Nothing like independence, is there,” “I’ve had an inglorious life, it may become my good fortune to have a glorious death,” “How much more time have I,” “Is it time?” Tellingly, Dietrich ends with a sequence from The Scarlet Empress, in which the ingénue, frightened but also excited, blows out three candles, leaving her – and us – in the dark (36.59-37.20). Taken as a series, the seven films she made with von Sternberg, prove to have been predicated on an ephemerality of their own. As Sigmund Freud notes, “transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment.” As Thomas Julier's Dietrich suggests, the surplus enjoyment which transience affords proves to be key to our enjoyment of her, precisely because it also transcends time. Detached from her narrative, his celluloid diva offers up a protean array of passionate attitudes. We, in turn, are invited to enjoy a serial performance which celebrates her presence as one that is always re-appearing, and that never completely disappears, even when in deep shadow. Suspended beyond time we, too, can look at her over and again, and differently, each time. 

—Elisabeth Bronfen, 2016