Marlene Dietrich’s face: feminine power and the subversion of gender norms

by Kate

shanghai express marlene dietrich

Numerous homages have been written about Marlene Dietrich. She had incredible star power that is unmatched by basically anyone else. I’m not saying that Dietrich was the greatest star that ever existed, but quite possibly the strongest star persona ever constructed. Dietrich is a dream, and a powerful point of identification for women, especially because she so frequently bridges the gap between femininity and masculinity – not just in her appearance, but in her behavior. 

There is, however, one other component to the Marlene Dietrich equation, and that’s Josef Von Sternberg. Von Sternberg reportedly discovered Dietrich in a German cabaret and saw something interesting in her. She was initially slated to be a more virginal and pure type of leading lady (or a naive ingenue). While it’s interesting to speculate about how that may have played out in practice, it was never meant to be. Von Sternberg learned how to best bring out the Dietrich persona filmgoers fell in love with. And it wasn’t a one-sided deal. Dietrich was well aware of the power of her image. For instance, when working with Rouben Mamoulian, another great director, she reportedly worked hard to present her own image in a way she was happy with. In his essay on Dietrich’s face, Lutz Koepnick cites Maria Riva’s book, which details how Dietrich learned elements of lighting and recording to stage herself before Mamoulian’s camera.


As Dietrich understood, a star’s “being” is carefully constructed artifice. Under the star system, audiences thronged to the theater not to see actors act, but to perform the personas for which they were famous. And that persona was inseparable from image. Von Sternberg’s camera, his vision, and lighting is what brought the Dietrich we know to life, and as Riva suggests, Dietrich herself likely played a role as well. We know Dietrich, in part, by her prominent features: the high cheekbones undercut by deep shadow, the painted on mouth, and the arching eyebrows. We also know her by the way she glides across the screen, entrancing every man and woman in her path.

What Dietrich embodies to me is power: a strength of will that’s both obstructed and carried forward by her femininity. Her face is mask-like artifice, and that mask is the source of all her authority. Men often fear that part of femininity – the chicanery of makeup and costume that hides what is purported to be a more authentic, more “real” self. In Dietrich’s case, foundation, vaseline, feathers, and veils act as a shield that keeps the observer always one step away from reality.

Dietrich’s shapeshifting gender is also tied to her face. Perhaps the make up is necessary to prevent men from realizing the truth: that women are far more like men than the dominant gender would care to guess. All it takes is a tailored suit or high lighting to reveal this truth.

Dietrich Scarlet Empress

Sternberg dramatizes Dietrich’s face, and regardless of the various encounters and scenarios depicted in his films, it does seems to come down to her face: a point of power bursting through the celluloid. In Shanghai Express (1932) Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a woman, notorious in the region for relying on men for survival, ostensibly trading sex and companionship for new dresses and a place to rest her head at night. The central theme of the film is faith. Lily meets up with Doc (Clive Brook), a former lover, for whom she still carries a torch. He loves her too, but can’t bring himself to trust her feelings for him. She’s simply been with too many other men. Doc’s faith is tested further in the course of the film, as Lily is forced to bargain own feminine attention against his life.

Shanghai Express Marlene Dietrich

In a wonderful essay, Mary Anne Doane makes the case that the veiled woman threatens Western philosophy and logic by rendering the face, the most expressive and therefore truthful part of the body, unreadable. These themes play out on Dietrich’s face. As Sternberg covers her features with veils and shadows, he makes us wonder: Is the face laid bare a stand in for truth? Why should that be? Von Sternberg never provides the answer, nor does he ever provide a completely unshrouded view of Dietrich’s face.

In one of the most beautiful sequences, Lily stands in the moonlight and raises her chin slowly to complete the statuesque pose. A statue, sure, but one that instills a very real sense of mourning in the viewer. It’s one of the saddest images in any film. While Dietrich stands unveiled, she becomes like a goddess in the moonlight, and just as far from us mere mortals as ever.

Scarlet Empress (1934) is a very different movie, which tracks the rise of Catherine the Great to, well, greatness. There are a million things to talk about concerning this film, from the elaborate, gothic decor to the use of deep close-ups in which the faces illuminate the entire screen. Once again, however, duplicitousness is a theme. A turning point in the story of Catherine’s rise to power is her decision to betray her husband, the half-wit (a very unsettling Sam Jaffe), to whom she has initially vowed loyalty. (Of course, this was before realizing what her husband would truly be like.) Rather than sleeping with him like a dutiful wife, she trysts with an attractive guard and soon becomes pregnant with a royal heir. Naturally, this comes as somewhat of a surprise to her husband.

Just after she gives birth, the veil around the bed becomes all encompassing, filling the screen as though a gauze has been draped over the camera. The duplicity has become too much for the camera to bear. Though, at the same time, the veiling seems to offer Catherine some much needed privacy, and makes the audience all the more reverent of not only her wiles, but her strength. We are tempted to cast the veil aside and gaze at Dietrich, unhindered. Of course, we cannot.

Dietrich veil scarlet empress

Von Sternberg and Dietrich were artistic partners. Von Sternberg understood why Dietrich’s face and persona were important. He understood how to frame her features to underline the thesis they both constructed together — an essentially feminist argument about the power of a woman, which lies both in her inherent difference and similarity to a man. These films pose a question, too. Why is must a woman’s face be the subject of such close scrutiny?

That Dietrich’s face as the medium of this message is still notable today. Visible differences still make women diametrically opposed to men. But the reality is a lot more complicated. What remains unseen is even more dangerous to the powers that be – a woman’s ability to hide her inherent similarity to men under a feminine mask. In many ways, the world isn’t ready for women to remove that mask. That’s why watching Dietrich shrewdly navigate the screen is as powerful an experience as ever. Women identify with Dietrich. We become her, and we learn to conquer a world that isn’t designed for us. More than 70 years later, Dietrich is still an exciting and subversive figure, and she remains inscrutable after all this time. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Further reading:
Lutz Koepnick, “Dietrich’s Face,” found in Dietrich Icon
Mary Ann Doane, “Veiling over Desire: Close-ups of the Woman,” found in Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis