Marlene, Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary about the legendary Marlene Dietrich played at IFC's Stranger Than Fiction on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I almost missed this screening with family coming in for the holidays, but I decided with only two more films left in the Stranger Than Fiction fall line up, I had to go. Besides who doesn't love Marlene Dietrich? Thom Powers, one of Stranger Than Fiction's hosts, admitted that he has received numerous requests to incorporate this documentary into one of their programs. I can see why. Marlene turns out to go far beyond a biographical documentary though. It's incredibly inventive. Mr. Schell uses what many filmmakers may have viewed as impossible barriers, as powerful subtext and humor in a documentary that never shows the main character in present day. We are teased with only her very distinct voice, as her and the filmmaker cuss and discuss the details of her life. Ms. Dietrich's contract, which she continues to refer to when the director asks her for more than the audio recording interview, states that she agrees to the documentary if her image isn't recorded on camera - only her voice. At once point she even instructs her director on how to edit the film together by just using archival footage from her films and publicity coverage on her arrival to America. As Ms. Dietrich explains how to cut the documentary without using any present day footage of her, the actual edit follows her instruction, turning it into a mini scene directed by Marlene Dietrich that is awfully humorous.
Mr. Schell's creative use of mini-arguments with Ms. Dietrich to inspire revelations about her character as much as humor by revealing her stubborn nature and some surprising opinionated pronouncements (a legend often considered a feminist icon in her sexy men's suits, doesn't believe in women's lib). She comes across as charming nonetheless and the filmmaker uses scenes with his film crew and editor, along with archival material from Ms. Dietrich's films and stage performance to put together a marvelously entertaining and subtextual story that is far more effective than other biographical documentaries that actually have their main character on camera and are following them around. In a variety of ways it seems that Marlene is a pre-cursor to greatly imaginative and resourceful films such as The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002).
Marlene is available on Netflix and it is a instructive and enjoyable documentary on how to use challenges that on the surface seem to be working against the filmmaker, to an advance that turns into a very compelling story that works.
Stranger Than Fiction's last fall season screening is this Tuesday night and looks to be a good one. Click here for synopsis and tickets for Surviving Hitler: A Love Story.