Marlene Dietrich: A Trans-Atlantic Hero

Black and white image of a woman in an army uniform with hundreds of paratroopers in the background
Marlene Dietrich With Parachutists / George Horton / March 1945 / Deutsche Kinemathek / Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin

Did you know that in Germany, Marlene Dietrich remains revered as an icon of anti-Nazism? There is even a square named after her in the city of Berlin—the Marlene Dietrich Platz. Dietrich earned this reputation when she refused to star in propaganda films in the 1930s for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Instead, she went close to the front lines in the European Theater of World War II and performed with the USO for American soldiers. As the curator of the upcoming exhibition, “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image,” I am consistently asked this question: How did Dietrich develop such a moral compass?

Born in 1901 and raised in Berlin, Dietrich came of age in the late 1910s, just as the wild and bawdy Berlin cabaret scene was beginning to take off. By the late 1920s, Dietrich had made a name for herself as an actor, performing in plays such as Marcellus Schiffer’s Es Liegt in der Luft (It’s in the Air) at the Komödie Theater (1928), and in Georg Kaiser’s Zwei Krawatten (Two Ties) at the Berliner Theater (1929). In the latter, Dietrich sang a song with Margo Lion about “Sisters”—a tongue in cheek tune about lesbianism by Mischa Spoliansky. Throughout her life, Dietrich was open about her bisexuality. She famously wore men’s trousers, drawing as much attention for her cross-dressing as she did on the arm of her latest lover. Dietrich never apologized for her sexuality—she didn’t see why she should. In 1961, she defined the difference between American culture and that of Europe as a question of prudism. She wrote, “Sex: In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact.” Berliners today especially think of Dietrich as the woman who remained true to these German roots, due to her public statements during the 1930s and 1940s about her beliefs on freedom, and unforgettably, her refusal to be Hitler’s puppet in the movies.

Image of a staircase with Berlin Bar in neon letters on the ceiling
Photo by JCBriceno

On May 11, as part of our Passport to Portraiture series (in which curators from the National Portrait Gallery research and highlight portraiture in the Embassies of Washington, D.C.), I had the pleasure of talking about Marlene Dietrich with the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Kim Sajet, as well as with the Ambassador Peter Wittig of Germany, at the latter’s residence. The German Ambassador’s Residence is one of the best examples of modern architecture in Washington. Built by the renowned German architect O.M. Ungers, it not only features twelve incredible portrait paintings by the Neo-Expressionist Markus Lüpertz, but it also has the city’s best kept secret: The Berlin Bar. A fantastic, cozy space with sofas, the Berlin Bar showcases Germany’s best beer as well as photographs of denoting facets of German culture. Currently, photographs of the magnificent Dietrich adorn the wall, making the perfect setting to remember the actor’s German roots. We found ourselves learning a lot during the discussion, as friends of the German Embassy and of the National Portrait Gallery contributed their own remembrances of Dietrich. Best of all, we reminded each other of an important historical figure whose integrity was just as important as her beauty and talent. You can learn more about the fascinating figure of Marlene Dietrich by coming to the exhibition, which opens June 16, 2017.