23 November 2011 | chaos-rampant
One face at a time
This was made as a response to Greta Garbo's Mata Hari from the previous year about the exotic dancer turned WWI spy. Dietrich's film is also about a woman turned spy, it involves deceit and sexual danger, a woman acting, an intoxicating performance, all these things that Dietrich naturally breathed by simply being herself; but it also had what the other film didn't, von Sternberg directing, here in the space that would later come to characterize the best of Hitchcock.
We know that it was Sternberg who seduced the persona of the femme fatale out of Dietrich, later claiming he had discovered her. Seduced what he wanted to be seduced by, no doubt.
So it is only natural that we should expect an excellent film here, about Dietrich seducing an audience of eager men. The effort is not for realism, never was with these two. It was always about staging the circumstances that would enable us to dream this woman. It was so in Der Blaue Engel. So it makes a lot of sense that the actual films would exude the scent of movie fantasy, for example here the pure gaudiness of the ball masque with seduction behind masks, or that Dietrich would be allowed a piano in a wartime prison cell. She is playing for us of course, because she and Sternberg knew we wanted to see.
Why this isn't then up to par compared to earlier Sternberg, has a lot to do I think with the film lacking a more carefully woven self-reference; what made The Last Command such a breathtaking venture in the space between staged image and tortured heart.
There is some that I find tantalizing, namely two consecutive scenes in the end where Dietrich bares her soul from behind long eye-lashes before a military court and soon after before a firing squad. Two audiences where every member would rather hold her in his arms than do what he has to do.
The rest is too overt. The message against war is noble but trite, a forced humanism that is not among the rest of the film's agenda. And Victor McLaglen gives one of the weirdest performances I've seen, a leering that borders on perverse. It was originally intended for Gary Cooper, but it's perhaps better that we have it as it is; it adds to the feverish sexual brew.
Still, this being Sternberg's temple of worship, we get to dream about this woman. She only concedes to touch the world by playing the piano, this is proper I think. We get to fall madly in love, an instrument at her fingers, herself an instrument for music and the fates.