What did movie stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich have in common besides great cheekbones and European accents? The ability to exude not-giving-a-damn. I might not be absolutely unattainable, they implied, but if I did say yes, I’d just be going through the motions. As Dietrich professed in one of her signature songs, “I’m the laziest girl in town.”
“Marlene,” C.W. Gortner’s new novel, takes us through the first half of “The Aloof One’s” life, up to the end of World War II. Young Maria Magdalene Dietrich trains as a classical violinist only to lose interest when a teacher advises that she might do all right in an orchestra but lacks the chops for a solo career. She finds her way to the Berlin demimonde of cabarets catering to gay men, lesbians and transvestites; and although her legs are already drawing attention, she feels most at home in a tuxedo.
She evolves from hanger-on to performer, and it turns out she can sing. Her voice, if not a precision instrument, is an expressive one. As for acting, she and her gams slog their way through minor roles in German films until the big break comes: the role of Lola Lola in “The Blue Angel” (1930). Dietrich is whisked off to Hollywood, where Paramount is seeking an answer to MGM’s Garbo. Paradoxically, Gortner suggests, Dietrich comes into her own when she stops resisting the comparison to her Swedish rival. “Perhaps all I needed to do was cultivate a magnificent indifference like Garbo,” she thinks.
Gortner is at his best in pitting Dietrich against another European competitor, the actress-turned-filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Although the two women harbor a mutual distaste, in 1936 Riefenstahl is dispatched to London, where Dietrich is making a movie, to relay an offer from Joseph Goebbels: Come home and star in German films. When Dietrich points out that the German press has been trashing her work for years, Riefenstahl responds, “We promise an immediate reversal of the campaign against you.” That “we” underlines Riefenstahl’s close ties with the Nazis, for whom she has already shot the worshipful documentary “Triumph of the Will” (1935).
Not only does Dietrich decline the offer but a few years later she throws herself into entertaining American GIs in Allied-occupied Europe. (Readers wanting more on these two strong women are directed to Karin Wieland’s “Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives.”)
Much of “Marlene,” however, is pretty routine — and needlessly spelled out. “I had learned that desire can fade and trying to possess someone wasn’t wise,” Dietrich says regarding her low opinion of faithfulness. “Better to love freely while it lasted, without staking any claims.” But since in private life she has already shown herself to be just about the liveliest girl in town, this is hardly an insight. While reading “Marlene,” I kept trying to think what it adds to the many biographies of Marlene — Steven Bach’s, for example, or Donald Spoto’s. I’m afraid I came up short.
Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on movies.