Publication: Theater Pizzazz
By: Ron Fassler
You have partly based your show on a three-hour phone call between you and the late Marlene Dietrich in Paris thirty years ago. It began with you sending her a postcard, her response to that. When you picked up the phone that day, were you at all prepared for who was going to be on the other end of the line? And could you ever have dreamed you would have a conversation that lasted three hours?
It was an unbelievable moment . I had to sit down .. wanted to scream in wonder .. and yet was so humbled and honored. I was alone in my hotel room and just wanted to share this with someone. I wished I had been prepared … with burning questions and more detailed information about her life and movies. But at the time it was a conversation between a very young curious German actress living and working in Paris and a grown actress, a legend with an incredibly rich life story and career, an inspirational free spirited woman to many generations .
We talked and talked , well mainly she talked .. I did ask many questions .. but she just took off. In the middle after a good hour she had to do something, she said a plumber was there to fix the sink (I think she made that up , may be she needed to go to the bathroom or pore herself another drink )
Though you are both native Germans, you were born decades apart and from different cities (she from Berlin and you from Munster). In your research and discoveries over the years, or even in that phone conversation, what were (if any) the similarities you shared as young women?
We are both kind of Expatriates and have a complicated relationship with our birthland. I lived many years in Berlin .. the Berlin of the cold war , the eighties. I rather feel like a Berliner than a Muensteraner , that is only my childhood. But my years as a young actress in this divided Berlin has had a huge impact on my artistic and personal identity. I think Marlene also always had a piece of Berlin inside of her in her interpretation of 35 Hollywood movie roles.
it is this expressionistic sense of crude reality with a political awareness and a scream in art of pain and longing. She lived in Berlin before the world ended and I lived in Berlin after the world had ended . It was tough to deal with the German history that was put into my cradle … Nazi Germany and of course the most unbearable fact of the Holocaust. Marlene wore the same scares , inflicted in earlier times as a witness of the war and a witness to the German Righteousness after the war .
I started recording the cycle of Kurt Weill and Berlin Kabarett albums at that time in 1987, which defined my connection to the Weimar time as a protagonist of the songs of Jewish exiled composers in hundreds of concerts all over the world . In 1988 I sang the songs of Hollaender and Spoliansky that Marlene had sung in 1928. I was the first German to rerecord this repertoire after the war.
Do you remember when you first became aware of who Marlene was as a young girl interested in singing and the dancing? Or was she such a ubiquitous presence in German culture, that any young person would have known who she was?
She was a mystery .. a glamorous Holywood actress … but also a statue , frozen in stylism. A mythe. Her German story was not rarely talked about. There were some dark clouds adorning this legacy.
What is it about Marlene Dietrich that fascinates you? Do you subscribe to the notion that she was more of a unique stylist than a great singer? And if so, is there a distinction between those two things that you would care to expand upon?
I care about her story. RENDEZVOUS WITH MARLENE is the story I want to tell ….. There are many stories out theer about her .. this one is my personal homage … I tell the story through my eyes and sing her songs with my voice .. I am not really impersonating her….neither imitating her……. but she is rather using my body and voice to speak.
Marlene was a groundbreaking woman. She was a free spirit , sexual , seductive, yet masculine , androgynous, totally polygamous in her open marriage. She was politically and morally outspoken and courageous. She was ladylike and bossy at the same time .. she had class but loved whisky , dirty jokes and a good smoke. She was a heck of a guy to hang out with said Billy Wilder.
Marlene recited Rainer Maria Rilke on the phone, she spoke about her movies and songs .. mostly about the really sad and heartbreaking songs that she preferred to the light entertaining ones. She spoke about Paris , Jean Gabin , about her daughter Maria Riva , who had written that ugly book about her. It was fully written at the time of our conversation and Marlene said that she had to beg her daughter on her knees , not to publish it before her death.
She was also very sad about being hated and rejected in Germany. She spoke about men .. love and solitude … and much more.
When you took on one of her most iconic roles, that of Lola in The Blue Angel, in a 1992 German stage production, how much of the film did you watch in order to prepare? Or did you even look at it at all?
Of coure I knew the movie. But , I did not want to act Marlene Dietrich , but the part of LOLA. I conceived that part intentionally opposite to Marlene’s image. I was red haired , punk , modern , edgy and wild. My physic was anyway so different from Marlene’s huge round body in 1928.
In what ways does Marlene Dietrich symbolize Germany for you, or Berlin specifically? And does it have more to do with its past, or does it resonate still in its present?
She does not symbolize Berlin …. the story is very twisted and complicated. After the Germans rejected her in 1960 , treating her as a traitor to the fatherland , having been a soldier for the USArmy during World War 2 , she said the Germans and I no longer speak the same language ….. she never was welcomed back … only in her coffin .. and not even then …..
Only 100 years after her birthday the Germans embraced her again. This is now 2001 .. Berlin… finally the city had dedicated a big Square to her : the Marlene Dietrich Platz.
This is a complex subject and also reflects modern times of Nationalistic movements and populism. These feeling are deeply engrained in the societies, a selfrighteous arrogance that poisons the mind of our societies. As if people never learn ? Marlene had said it did not take much brain to be an Anti Nazi but still until 1990 many Germans did not forgive her to have chosen the other (obvious) side , the side of the Americans. …
You began your musical career singing in a jazz-rock band, and have Joan Armatrading, Chick Corea and the Brecker Brothers as influences. When did you become a fan of the sort of music that Dietrich represented?
I started recording the Weimar Music in 1987 and sing it world wide since those years. I have kept the dialog alive and burning about this chapter of history as a mission to my life .
Marlene sang many different songs .. Some are very corny …. so can be her singing style ..but some songs are classics and ever wonderful and contemporary.
And since you are singing many songs Dietrich used to sing in your show, where do her favorites fit into your catalogue of favorites?
sch , kleines Baby….. Where have all the flowers gone (Pete seeger)…. the answer my friend is blowing in the wind (bob Dylan) …. ne me quitte pas (brel) Laziest Gal in town ( Cole Porter) ….. falling in love again (Hollaender) and many others ……
Later in her career, Marlene had the good fortune to have enlisted Burt Bacharach as her musical director. Can you talk about the importance of Vana Gierig and the other musicians with whom you have had long associations?
I work with Vana for 15 years . A wonderful friend .. and incredible pianist .. but he is not my musical director … We actually invent most of the arrangements in collective creative rehearsal situations . We are always a team. All the musicians are my kings and brothers and sisters.
Finally, what would you want someone to take away with them about Marlene Dietrich, who might never heard of her before the curtain goes up on your show?
Oh , you are in for an incredible story … history , fate, courage, style, politics , glamour and sex, talent and a huge career in a deviiish dance around the fire between Berlin and Hollywood, youth and age.