The Enduring Allure of Marlene Dietrich

Curated by Pierre Passebon, "Obsession Marlene" offers an intimate glimpse into the screen siren’s life

When in Paris, go to Obsession Marlene at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP.) Curated by Pierre Passebon, the exhibition captures the prismatic nature of Marlene Dietrich, the style icon and Hollywood legend illustrated by photographers like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Milton Greene, George Hurrell, Irving Penn, Willy Rizzo, Tony Snowdon, and Edward Steichen. The 200 images chosen by Passebon, the renowned owner of Galerie du Passage, reflect the passion of his collection that was acquired over a 25-year period.

“With the exhibition, I wanted to demonstrate what a seductress Marlene was as well as being a perfectionist,” the 64-year-old Parisian said. “True, she fought for every detail to be flawless, but she had this gift to seduce whether she was pulling off a wig in the movie Blonde Venus or cooking in the film Manpower or just slipping out of a car and artfully showing her amazing legs when she was in her late 50s.” Passebon puts the successful seductiveness down to her lucidity and generosity of spirit. “Marlene loved to laugh and she wasn’t a snob either; film technicians and others adored working with her.” 

Naturally, Passebon has his group of favorite photographs. He points out Avedon’s portrait of Dietrich wearing a Christian Dior-designed turban, taken at the Ritz in 1955. “This has been so imitated,” he stated. A favorite of drag queens, it has become a camp classic. Whereas Milton Greene’s shot of her outstretched willowy legs donning Roger Vivier shoes defines timeless glamour, though taken in 1952. And then there’s Eisenstaedt’s playful snap of her wearing a top hat and tails (1929.) “What’s admirable is how Marlene always dominated the clothes,” said Passebon. “Some actresses are engulfed by certain styles but she never was.” 

Obsession Marlene flows over an entire floor and what continues to excite the eye is the choice and the variety of photographs covering both her professional and personal life. Naturally, her years with the director Josef von Sternberg are documented. ”A dream for every actress, Sternberg understood Marlene and transformed her into the exceptional professional that we remember,” Passebon said. Certainly, the evolution of a saucy, plump Dietrich on the set of The Blue Angel—her first Sternberg film—to looking chiseled and triumphant in her later films (Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlett Empress) is something to behold. Still, Dietrich was brilliantly intelligent and learnt the needed stage tricks to affirm her future. Later, when performing in Las Vegas, she understood that the fur coat had to be made of male swan’s down to give off the desired dramatic effect and that her embroidered chiffon dress had to suggest nudity in order to catch the attention of an audience who was eating. “She was this war machine,” said Passebon. Unfortunately, Dietrich’s considerable energy and vitality did not stop her from becoming a Paris-based recluse in her final two decades. “Old age was a nightmare for Marlene because she could no longer seduce,” he said. “It made her depressed and pushed her to drink.” Nevertheless, the happy images still remain and are highlighted in Obsession Marlene when she’s fooling around the pool with her daughter, Maria, or hugging American soldiers at the end of WWII, or sitting atop a pile of Mark Cross trunks, emanating sophistication.

Obsession: Marlene Dietrich: The Pierre Passebon Collection is on view through February 25 at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, located in Paris at 5/7 Rue de Fourcroy, 75004

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