Jenna Rose Robbins made the pilgrimage to several unofficial shrines of Berlin’s
own Blue Angel.
French actor Maurice Chevalier once said, “Dietrich is something that never existed before and may never exist again. That’s a woman.”
The legacy Marlene Dietrich left on cinema – and Germany as a whole – cannot be underestimated. She was a luminary in the fledgling world of film, an iconoclast when it was least acceptable to be one, and an unwavering symbol of self-assuredness and individualism.
Today, Dietrich remains one of Berlin’s most famous and beloved natives, and a visit to at least one of her former haunts is practically compulsory. A logical place to start is in the Schöneberg district at Leberstraße 65, where the future starlet was born two days after Christmas in 1901. The otherwise nondescript building bears both a plaque and a mural dedicated to the cinematic legend.
In her obituary, The New York Times called her “the quintessential cabaret entertainer of Weimar-era Germany,” which is fitting given that her entertainment career began in cabaret-studded Berlin. While the Eldorado nightclub, famed for its decadence and anything-goes atmosphere, has long since shuttered, the doors of Charlottenburg’s Komödie Theater (Kurfürstendamm 206/209) are still open, and the venue still produces revues similar to the ones Dietrich starred in on its stage.
Just a short stroll away is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (p. 37), where Dietrich exchanged vows with husband Rudolf Sieber. Although the two remained married until Sieber’s death in 1976, Dietrich was well known for her numerous romances, including affairs with Hollywood’s leading men – and, befitting her iconoclast nature, women. John Wayne, Claudette Colbert, Frank Sinatra, and – some say – John F. Kennedy are just a few of the names rumored to have been her romantic conquests.
Dietrich’s breakthrough role came with The Blue Angel, in which she played cabaret star and femme fatale Lola Lola. Much of the film was shot at nearby Potsdam’s Babelsberg Studio (p. 40), today Europe’s largest movie studio and home to the Marlene-Dietrich-Halle soundstage. The adjacent Filmpark Babelsberg offers fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of cinema, with vintage sets, rides, and shows laden with special effects.
In 1930, on the day The Blue Angel premiered, its star left Berlin to seek out her fame in Hollywood. Dietrich wouldn’t return to her hometown until 1945. The actress was staunchly anti-Nazi, refusing Hitler’s offer to return to Germany to continue her film career. Her wartime work earned her the Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest award for a civilian.
Upon Dietrich’s death in 1992, the city of Berlin paid $5 million to secure her estate of roughly 300,000 pieces, the largest such acquisition in history. Much of this memorabilia can be viewed at the Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film and TV (Potsdamer Str. 2. www.deutsche-kinemathek.de), a trove of German cinema, located, aptly enough, a stone’s throw from Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. Dietrich was nearly as important a fashion icon as she was a film star, and her predilection for pantsuits and other masculine-inspired attire can be viewed at the museum’s permanent exhibition dedicated to her, along with letters, personal items, and even the screen test for The Blue Angel, which was long believed lost but was rediscovered shortly before her death.
Dietrich may have spent most of her life outside of her native country, but she reserved a place for it in her heart, recording numerous songs about Berlin, including Ich Hab’ Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin (I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin), Das War in Schöneberg (That Was in Schöneberg), and an album featuring her interpretations of popular 20th-century Berliner tunes, which she considered her best musical work. Although she died in Paris, where she spent the last decade of her life in seclusion, Dietrich chose her hometown as her final resting place (p. 36), much to the delight of Berliners. But if further evidence is needed
for the icon’s devotion to the German capital, one need only read the German title of her autobiography: Thank God I’m a Berliner.