As a geyser with an insatiable appetite for cinema history, my introduction to Marlene Dietrich was Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Even in a cameo role as a brothel madam in Welles’ film, she was mesmerising and the love affair between star and camera that began 30 years earlier in the Sternberg films endured even though Dietrich was in her fifties.
Ute Lemper. Photograph © Lucas Allen
Hailed as the new Marlene after a Paris production of Cabaret, but embarrassed at the comparison, Ute Lemper wrote a letter of apology to the legend who had locked herself away in her Paris apartment, “I stopped showing my face, I was sick of being Marlene Dietrich”. Returning to her own apartment after a performance, Lemper was shocked to be handed a message from the night porter telling her to ring Dietrich. What ensued was a three-hour conversation (where Dietrich did the talking as she refused to be questioned) where the baton was passed from star to starlet.
While that telephone conversation is the foundation for this rendezvous, Lemper becomes the first person vessel for Dietrich’s part both in spoken word and song. Even though she breaks into the third person momentarily at a couple of critical junctures, Lemper recreates Marlene for the audience. However, this is not an impersonation. While Lemper’s speaking voice closely resembles that of her idol, she has a much stronger singing voice and wider range. Lemper gives her own voice to the material, but in doing so, conveys the essence of what made Dietrich a charismatic artist.
Ute Lemper. Photograph © Lucas Allen
There were two Dietrichs of course. The world feted the femme fatale and the untouchable chanteuse. However, Lemper searches for the flesh and blood, the woman who spoke up for herself (“think like a boss, but act like a lady”; Billy Wilder said that she was like one of the boys), the polygamist and bisexual, androgynous lover of many famous people. Of particular focus is Dietrich’s fraught relationship with her home country, Germany. Indeed, Lemper posits that Germany’s failure to come to terms with Dietrich’s loyalty to the United States in World War II is symptomatic of its failure to come to terms with itself and the Nazi catastrophe.
The performance begins with Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Dietrich’s opening number upon her 1962 return to German soil, an anthem to the horror of war, nationalism and arrogance repeating itself: “after this song, nothing can be sung”. Also achingly poignant was Just a Gigolo, the last number she sang on the screen. However, Lemper also gives us the bawdiness that epitomised Dietrich in cabaret in Arlen’s One For My Baby where Lemper’s jazz improvisation soared and the raucous Boys in the Back Room from the Western Destry Rides Again. The Weimar favourites Naughty Lola and Illusions were perhaps a little cursory compared to Lemper’s offerings on past tours.
Ute Lemper. Photograph © Brigitte Dummer
After the interval, Lemper returned in a white outfit reminiscent of Dietrich’s Bacharach period and sang Cole Porter’s risqué Laziest Gal in Town, but then we returned to Dietrich’s Paris apartment and her final years, her bittersweet memories of the war (Lille Marlene, Hollander’s Ruins of Berlin and Marie), her affair with Piaf (I Wish You Love) and that Jean Gabin was the love of her life (Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas).
Lemper and Dietrich shared a love of the German poet Maria Rainer Rilke and Dietrich replied to Lemper’s letter because she “wanted to be with those who know secret things or else alone”. She advised Lemper to keep her private life, her heart for herself, “otherwise they will kick you to death”. In the end, she was happiest when working; “paradise is boring, can’t work, serve, sing”.
Jean Cocteau told Dietrich that “your name starts with a caress and finishes with a horse-whip”. She was a mix of the sensual and the powerful and Lemper gives that fusion an exquisite airing in this memorable production.