Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell
Written by: Meir Dohnal, Maximilian Schell
Directed by: Maximilian Schell
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: German, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 01/13/1984

Marlene (1984)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Angel and Devil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great German-born actress Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) did not make the most promising documentary subject for director Maximilian Schell. She refused to actually be filmed for it, and she was not at all interested in discussing her private life. Moreover, she hated looking at her old films again and had very little good to say about her various directors or co-stars -- except Schell, with whom she appeared in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). But Schell persisted, using extensive audio recordings of the star, a well as generous clips of her best movies (The Blue Angel, The Devil Is a Woman, Touch of Evil Witness for the Prosecution, etc.), television performances, newsreels, and photographs. Yet Schell knew that wasn't enough, so he turned the film into a kind of personal odyssey, a Roger & Me-like quest to discover and understand another person, when that person is not making herself available. Schell incorporates footage of himself and his crew attempting to overcome these problems, setting up partitions, editing footage and acknowledging Schell's frustration as well as his adoration. He is a great interviewer, continually probing with well-considered questions and attempting to poke holes in her defenses without antagonizing her. The result is a fascinating document, not only of the star herself, but also of the documentary as personal process; it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature (and lost to The Times of Harvey Milk). Kino Video has released it to DVD in 2009, though it would have been great if they had included one of Dietrich's films as a bonus feature, perhaps one of the rare, hard-to-find silent features, or something like Dishonored (1931), which is not available on DVD as of yet.

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