Star Wars Episode VI: Marlene Dietrich at War (YMRT #32) / by Karina Longworth


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German actress/singer Marlene Dietrich — famous for her revolutionarily ambiguous, highly glamorous sexual libertine persona, as displayed on-screen during the 1930s in films like Morocco and Shanghai Express — was embedded with the Allies during World War II as a performer, propagandist, and de facto intelligence agent. We’ll explore how and why this happened, why the experience left Dietrich depressed and financially destitute, and how Billy Wilder convinced Marlene to play a Nazi sympathizer in the filmmaker’s attempt to make a post-war Hollywood propaganda film, A Foreign Affair. Also: a few of Dietrich’s many affairs with co-stars such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, her plot to kill Hitler, and the FBI investigation that tried (and failed) to prove that Dietrich was a German spy.

Show Notes:

A Foreign Affair, which I discuss in the episode and highly recommend, is not on DVD. I first saw it in a rep house in Paris two years ago, and then found a copy on VHS while I was working on this episode. The short clip I included in this episode comes from the radio version of the film, which is on YouTube.

To keep things interesting, this week two of my sources, though very different books, both have the same title. Dietrich’s own autobiography Marlene, first published in 1989, claims to set the record straight on all of the previous books written about her, which she insists are rubbish. She’s so persuasive on this matter that I ignored all other books published while she was alive, and focused on Marlene: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, who spent some time with Dietrich in the 1970s and also interviewed many of her friends and lovers, but held back publishing her book until 2011, long after Dietrich’s death. 

In looking for information on the making of A Foreign Affair, I discovered two books new to me: Charles Brackett’s diary of working with Wilder, It’s the Pictures That Got Small; and A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films by Gerd Gemunden. I found the former to be almost too bitchy, and the latter to be a little academic but very useful in its detailing of Wilder’s wartime and post-war experience.

Two other sources worth mentioning, both of which I read years ago but did not consult directly this week: Josef von Sternberg’s memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and Gaylyn Studlar’s book on Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations, In the Realm of Pleasure.

The bit about Dietrich’s FBI file comes from this Guardian story, and details on Operation Muzak and other aspects of Dietrich’s war experience come from this article on the CIA’s own website.


You Go to My Head performed by Marlene Dietrich

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Give Me The Man performed by Marlene Dietrich

Assez performed by Marlene Dietrich

Au coin de la rue by Marco Raaphorst

Benbient by Canton

Lili Marlene performed by Marlene Dietrich

Prelude No. 21 by Chris Zabriskie

Look Me Over Closely performed by Marlene Dietrich

Black Market performed by Marlene Dietrich

Gymnopedie No.3 by Eric Satie

Illusions performed by Marlene Dietrich