Marlene Dietrich’s Re-Education of American Female Sensuality


This post was originally written for my MA Film and Literature course “Cold War Culture: Literature, Film, Theory in Cold War Europe” at the University of York (lecturer Dr. Erica Sheen). 

The most poignant line Marlene Dietrich has in A Foreign Affair is when she asks her American army officer lover, “What do you think it was like being a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? But I kept going.” It reveals the entire nature of her precarious situation as a woman, a person, an individual, that has been conquered and abused as harshly as the city of Berlin itself. The film opens with aerial views of the bombed out ruins of a once great city. Marlene Dietrich’s Erika von Schlütow’s scars are less visible to the naked eye, yet are revealed in much starker terms as she attempts to survive denazification, demilitarisation, democratisation, and Americanisation. At the expense of her own stability, this character educates the new society about the realities of female survival in a postwar context.

The duality of Marlene Dietrich’s star persona in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), first as a German ex-patriot and secondly as a patriotic American film star, serves to establish three distinctive heterotopias within the film text, enabling American postwar audiences to navigate the complexities of Berlin’s zonal divisions as represented in the film. Within these heterotopias, the Dietrich persona offers layers of discourse related to time, place, and nationalism, which allow her to re-educate Congresswoman Frost (Jean Arthur) on the expectations of womanhood in the new patriarchal order of a world divided by the Cold War.

Marlene Dietrich almost operates as a scapegoat within the film, because it is Jean Arthur’s wholesome American who walks into the sunset with her man, while Dietrich’s von Schlütow is marched off to be denazified at a labour camp. Dietrich utilizes her quintessential Hollywood glamour and her European ken to teach Congresswoman Frost about the shifting expectations for women in a Cold War society. Her sensual European persona is contextually more relevant in relation to the widened American consciousness of the world after the war, and of America’s relationship with that world and the people in it. While the women of the American homefront were more or less isolated from both theatres of war, European women experienced the conflict first-hand. This required these women to reposition their sexuality in relation to the political and military men who directly manoeuvred the experiences of the people.

Marlene Dietrich’s relationship with the United States hinged somewhat on her heightened sexuality. As a German native in Hollywood, her image required mediation in order to avoid the public’s anti-German sentiments in the interwar years, as well as throughout WWII and the Cold War. Unlike other German ex-patriots in the film industry, Dietrich did not anglicise her name, love her German accent, or in any other way deny her status as a European, at the very least. She took advantage of her otherness by exoticising her persona and leveraging her sexuality in a way that could both excuse her Germanness while simultaneously coming to represent it. Dietrich was also very active throughout the war years entertaining the troops in the USO. As is pointed out in A Not So Foreign Affair:

“In the end it is the fabulous sequined gown that anchors [Dietrich’s] femininity, her obvious love for men that mitigates her occasional lesbian affairs, and her rousing American patriotism that dispels any negative aura around her German origins. That is not to say that she does not contribute to function iconically as politically and sexually indeterminate, and hence politically threatening, but rather that she is able, through her demonstrative femininity, heterosexuality, and patriotism, to make ambiguity “safe for democracy.”” (Slane, 2001, 232)

In making A Foreign Affair, Wilder deliberately set about to make a propaganda film that would utilise a traditional Hollywood romance narrative to sell democracy to a divided Europe. However, the ambiguous nature of the satire in this film limits the extent to which this film goes to glorify the American denazification process of Berlin. The audience is immediately more allied with the sensuous Dietrich-Nazi than with the straight-laced Iowa Congresswoman.

The Berlin of A Foreign Affair (Wilder, 1949) was a city divided, both literally and ideologically. In the nightclub scenes of the film, the performer is thrown into the air by a collection of soldiers from each of the occupying countries – this act of celebrating the performer while also rendering him/her helpless and ridiculous could not be a more fitting visualization of what was happening to Berlin as a whole at this period. Berlin and her citizens were up for grabs, as it were, and the Hollywood film industry played its part in producing propaganda that would not only democratise but Americanize the German people. As one of the Congressmen says concerning American imperialism at the start of the film:

“If you give a man a loaf of bread, that’s democracy. But if you leave the wrapper on, that’s imperialism!” (Wilder, 1948)

Marlene Dietrich and her dual personal are able to operate as the loaf of bread without the wrapper. Or is she the wrapper without the loaf of bread? She is both, in that she is able to feed the post-war desires for more gendered performances while also selling the moral need of denazification and democratisation.

One aspect of the postwar demilitarisation process that the audience is able to witness in A Foreign Affair is the reestablishment of gender roles. The return to peace both on the homefront and abroad had the opposite effect on the progress of women’s rights as Jenna M. Loyd described in her article about the “Critical Geographies of Violence” when she said:

“These harms of war and war-making are not experienced evenly, which is to say that militarization exacerbates and reshapes existing social inequalities.” (Loyd, 2009, 866)

While Loyd argues that it is war-making that exacerbates inequalities, in the case of women’s independence in the West following World War II, war brought progress in this area when women on the homefront were encouraged to participate in the war effort as actively, if not as specifically, as men. Women worked in traditionally male roles, as munition workers, codebreakers, spies, nurses, and even as WAACs, WAAFs, and WReNS.

As A Foreign Affair exhibits, it was the coming of peace that brought a return to gender tropes not experienced since the Victorian age. The first way this is manifested in the film is the glorification of baseball and its reformative effects on the male youth of Berlin. In their tour of the city, the delegation of Congressmen visit a youth club where German boys are playing baseball. As the Colonel says:

“One family christened a kid DiMaggio Swartz. That’s when I started to really believe we won the war.”

Although the plot of the film is centred on a female ex-Nazi, no mention is made of how the female youth of Berlin are being democratised. What all-American pastimes are they being taught that will help them avoid the pitfalls Erika von Schlütow is now having to negotiate her way out of?

As Wilder’s Berlin navigates the ideological reconstruction of post-war Europe within the film text of A Foreign Affair, the men responsible for normalising democratic thought, including the filmmaker himself, return to gendered assumptions that label the female character-citizens dangerous, thus inadvertently placing them in danger of being perceived as threatening. It is as if the film is arguing that boys will be boys and girls will be “witches” and prudes. Boys will play baseball and women will sing in nightclubs. Erika is perceived as dangerous simply because she once associated with dangerous people. She is in danger because she was once associated with dangerous people. She is found guilty by association, and there is no recourse for her, nor for the next generation of Berlin girls to avoid the same fate.

Erika’s only hope for safety during the war was to associate with the right people, and her only hope after the war is to associate with the right people, with men like Pringle, who is willing to hide her file and risk his career to keep her safe. This unsustainably gendered status quo is expressed in A Foreign Affair in the heterotopias created by the presence of her persona, which we will look at after first unpacking her dangerous/in danger relationship with Captain Pringle.

Erika’s association with Johnny could get him in trouble with the Army if he were discovered fraternizing with the enemy (“Johnny, if they find out you know me, that’s very dangerous!”). Johnny not only has the political power to either protect or condemn Erika as a former Nazi, but he also threatens to physically harm her in a number of scenes, utilizing violent language even in his love-making:

Johnny: “No mattress will help you sleep. What you Germans need is a good conscience.”

Erika: “I have a good conscience. I have a new führer now. You. Heil Johnny.”

Johnny: “You heil me once more and I’ll knock your teeth in. Why don’t I choke you a little? [Hands around neck] Break you in two. Build a fire under you, ya blonde witch.” [He kisses her]

Frost is a major threat for both Johnny and Erika. As a Congresswoman, she has the power to send Erika to a labour camp and to have Johnny court-martialled for fraternising. As with Erika, Johnny poses a physical threat to Phoebe, a threat which he carries out in his non-consensual sexual assault of her while they are looking for Erika’s files:

Phoebe: “Don’t!”

Johnny: “Why not? You’re not a Nazi. Don’t tell me it’s subversive to kiss a Republican.”

Phoebe: “You are entirely out of order.”

Phoebe: “I just wanna die. It’s awful – it never should have happened.”

For, despite her high office as a United States Congresswoman, she is nonetheless only a woman, and A Foreign Affair is not the first film to come out of Hollywood making the assumption that any woman, if kissed hard enough and long enough, really wants nothing more than to be the sexual conquest of a man. The most notorious example of this trend is Rhett Butler’s forced consummation of his marriage to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind (1939), which shows the heroine giddy with ecstasy the next morning – though these are by no means the only examples of this forced sexualisation of female film characters.

As the “moralist who espouses the Nazi ideals of health and purity much more closely than Erika/Dietrich’s persona does” (Slane, 235), Phoebe must be “de-Frosted” in order to effectively fulfil her mission to re-instil morality in the American troop, most notably Captain John Pringle. He is only able to choose the wholesome American after she has adopted the European sensuality that will allow her to match that of the seductive but amoral German femme fatale. This is where Dietrich’s duality functions to educate Frost about Cold War femininity. In her role as the European femme fatale in A Foreign Affair, she functions as a counterpart to Jean Arthur’s Frost, thus establishing a romantic rivalry between the two female types (slut and prude). Erika’s feminine advice to Phoebe is particularly ironic in this scene, when Frost and Pringle confront her in the street in front of her flat:

Erika (to Phoebe): “I see you do not believe in lipstick. And what a curious way to do your hair, or rather not to do it.”

Johnny: “Do you know who you are talking to!?”

Erika: “An American woman. And I am a little bit disappointed, to tell you the truth. We apparently have a false idea about the chic American woman. I suppose that’s publicity from Hollywood.”

The irony is that Dietrich is the “chic American woman” created by Hollywood’s publicity machine. As is pointed out in A Not So Foreign Affair:

“… the ambiguities between a star’s life and the fictional characters she plays – especially those represented by Dietrich’s wartime track record as a “good German” – also point to a second, less repressive series of cultural and political negotiations whereby Dietrich’s sexy Nazi can come to expand notions of the sexual culture of democracy.” (Slane, 230)

Dietrich is one of a group of European stars who became popular in the years leading up to WWII and immediately following, including Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Gina Lollobrigida, Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret, Anna Karina, and Hedy Lamarr. With the exception perhaps of Audrey Hepburn, these European women were “bombshells,” employing their voluptuous physiques to project an image of heightened sexuality. The outlier of this group is Greta Garbo, who did not make a film after 1941, despite her popularity in the 1930s. Audrey Hepburn was not a sexpot as such, but her waiflike femininity was a direct result of her troubled childhood in war-torn Belgium.

This European cohort of stars could not be more distinct from the aristocratic, educated, independent woman glorified by the films of the previous decade. Although stars like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford continued making films for decades after the war, the Hollywood studios stopped grooming this type of persona, preferring instead to cater to the public’s masculine desires for sensuality and femininity over intelligence and independence. Jean Arthur’s persona as Congresswoman Frost is more in the pre-war camp and must be tamed into just Phoebe, a woman who would rather wear lipstick and be kissed by an officer than do her job as a representative of the United States government.

The Lorelei nightclub serves as the locus in quo for Phoebe’s re-education and reformation, in the same way the youth clubs reform German boys. Here soldiers from each of the occupied zones comes to exchange cigarettes for alcohol and chocolate cakes procured by the club proprietors at the black markets. They are also there to enjoy, if not consume, the European sensuality displayed by Dietrich, who reprises her role as the Weimar cabaret performer of her earlier films. Von Schlütow’s song reveals her “it’s a hard knock life” attitude to her position as a citizen of Berlin. It becomes clear that she is aware that political, social, and sexual promiscuity is a part of daily engagement with the occupying powers and the ability to survive the changes taking place around her.

“As referent for the image of the Weimar cabaret siren, Marlene Dietrich is herself part of the knowability crisis here – a ‘good’ German who comes to the United States but suspiciously retains her European accent, style, ‘unknowability.’” (Slane, 229)

It will become equally clear later, to both von Schlütow and the film’s audience, that this knowledge and acceptance of the shifting status quo cannot protect her from the consequences of her past. Just as Anna’s ability to navigate the various zones of The Third Man (Welles, 1949)’s Vienna didn’t enable her escape from the onslaught of the Cold War, so does von Schlütow’s position merely inform her of the inevitability of her destiny.

In her first song of the film, performed at the Lorelei, Dietrich sings an ode to the “Black Market.” Running parallel to the theme of sexual exchange among the three main characters is the fluid economy of the black market. Interestingly, the black market in A Foreign Affair is located at the Brandenburg Gate. While this geo-political position was already coming to symbolise the stark East/West division of Berlin, Germany, and the world as a whole during the Cold War, Wilder here uses the location as a melting pot of nationalities, showing Berliners, Russians, and Americans participating in a an open market exchange of goods.

Like the black market, the nightclub serves as what Foucault would term a “heterotopia”:

“which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.” (Foucault, 1967, 3-4)

The Lorelei is a real physical place, but it comes to represent an ideologically separate place, in which the realities of the divided city do not exist. While the effects of lack are evident in the medium through which payment is made (in cigarettes), there is an abundance to be found here that circumnavigates the problems of rationing.

The chocolate cake for example, seen being served to happy customers at the Lorelei, represents the “secondhand illusions” Dietrich sings about in one of her numbers at the club. For Frost, the cake is a touching love token from Pringle’s girlfriend Dusty back home. But the moniker reveals Pringle’s feelings for her in that he easily brushes her off to trade the cake on the black market for a mattress for his German mistress. It is Frost’s “lovely illusions, / reaching high, built on sand” that must be deconstructed in order for her to progress beyond her hayseed naïveté.

The Lorelei serves as the arena in which doubleness is navigated in the quest for truth. The black market doubles as a sign of failed reform and as an indicator of free trade. The chocolate cake doubles as a commodity and as a symbol of romance. Within the confines of the nightclub, Frost is able to double as Congresswoman Frost on the one hand, spying on the American GIs and on von Schlütow, and as Phoebe, the thawed out American who was willing to swap her typewriter for some makeup and a dress to wear for a night on the town. At the films dramatic climax, the Lorelei transforms from an apolitical pleasure zone to a battleground when Erika’s former Nazi lover is shot dead in his attempt to kill Pringle.

A third heterotopia presented in A Foreign Affair (after the black market and the Lorelei) is Erika von Schlütow’s flat. This space reflects precisely what Foucault describes when he says:

“We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” (Foucault, 3)

The set of delineating relations that define Erika’s condition are political, economic, military, sexual, and moral, in addition to defining the physical place in which she lives. The place is neither private nor public. When Frost asks Pringle whether her house has a back door, Pringle quips that it doesn’t even have a back wall. However, a great deal is made within the film text that it is still necessary for Erika to thrown down a large key every time Pringle comes to visit. Pringle, military police, and eventually a representative of the US Congress in the form of Frost, all transgress into the space, regardless of Erika’s consent to do so, thus bringing the political and military unworkings of the city literally into Erika’s bedroom. Von Schlütow’s flat also serves as a marketplace of sorts, where she exchanges sexual services for the material goods and political security Captain Pringle can offer her.

The fact that the building in which Erika resides is a ruin places her experience in a specific moment of time, suspended precariously between the grim realities of war and the utopian possibilities of peace. The bombs are no longer falling, and yet Erika is still plagued by the exhaustion of not having slept for the past twelve years. The broken bed and desperate desire for the mattress Johnny brings her are not simply facts of life, they are manifestations of a specific chronological experience of history, a specifically female experience, which is unable to escape from the dangerous implications of past events and future accountability for that past. Erika’s flat function as the nexus of what Habermas would term her “lifeworld”:

“The term “lifeworld,” by contrast, refers to domains of action in which consensual modes of action coordination predominate…. “Lifeworld” then refers to the background resources, contexts, and dimensions of social action that enable actors to cooperate on the basis of mutual understanding: shared cultural systems of meaning, institutional orders that stabilize patterns of action, and personality structures acquired in family, church, neighborhood, and school.” (TCA 1: chap. 6; 1998b, chap. 4)

The “shared cultural systems of meaning” of Erika’s past, present, and future experiences collide in this public/private heterotopia, making her lifeworld stable in its instability. The stability lies in the fact that the space exists as a ruin, and as a ruin it is inherently incomplete and doomed to deconstruction and reconstruction. Erika as female prototype will be deconstructed in the denazification process while the beta version of her sensual femininity will be reconstructed in the form of the sexually liberated Phoebe Frost.

Marlene Dietrich’s Erika von Schlütow personalizes the process of denazification in her role as a German woman who is also a lifelong antifascist and patriotic citizen of the United States. This unique persona allows film texts to construct heterotopias of mixed political, social, chronological, geographical significance around her character. As other film characters pass through these heterotopias, they are transformed by access to the dual persona’s lifeworld. This transformation in Phoebe’s case involves a reconstructed understanding of American womanhood, created for the purpose of fulfilling the new desires of a male society, here represented by Captain Pringle, desires that have been altered by years of combat and exposure to European sexual norms. Just as Erika’s Berlin is democratised and Americanised by the victorious Americans, so are the Americans sexualised and gendered by the fractious socio-political divisions of postwar Berlin.


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