Babelsberg, 1929. Marlene Dietrich chants through the studios of the Babelsberg Film Studios:

“Falling In Love Again
Men cluster to me like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn I know I’m not to blame“

Chansons in Hollywood

Marlene could not have known then that she would carry the chanson Falling In Love Again around the world: On the very evening of the premiere of the film The Blue Angel, in which Marlene sang the chanson, Marlene set off for Hollywood. Through her director Josef von Sternberg she landed a contract with Paramount.
All the Hollywood films in which Marlene Dietrich starred between 1930 and 1945 have one thing in common: in the course of each film, Marlene sings her chanson. It was not unusual for her singing to be one of the highlights that drew audiences into the cinemas at the time. 

Alone In A Big City

Marlene Dietrich’s close relationship with the art of the chanson deepened in early 1933: Marlene was in Versailles, where she maintained contacts with numerous German filmmakers in exile. Marlene once arranged a meeting in her hotel with the composer Franz Wachsmann and the lyricist Max Kolpe: she wanted to record the song Allein in einer großen Stadt [Alone In A Big City], to which Wachsmann had written the melody and Kolpe the lyrics. Marlene could only remember the lyrics, but not the melody: so she asked Wachsmann to join her, who reconstructed the melody from memory.
The record that was made at that time was the first Dietrich record to receive greater attention. Until then, Marlene was known to the public only as an actress.

The record was also released in Germany – due to the exile status of Wachsmann and Kolpe, the two adopted a pseudonym for the German record release.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone

Max Kolpe later wrote the famous German translation of Where Have All The Flowers Gone for Marlene when she went on a world tour with her repertoire.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone is one of the most expressive songs Marlene Dietrich ever interpreted. The song is about the senselessness of wars: When will they ever learn?, Marlene sings wistfully into the microphone at the end of each verse. The intensity of her expression increases with every verse she sings. Marlene knows that the volume of a voice says nothing about its intensity: her voice becomes quieter towards the end, but all the more intense.
When will people ever understand that wars never had and never will have any meaning? It is this question that remains in the listener’s memory.

Marlene’s expression

The fact that Marlene was able to interpret the chanson Where Have All The Flowers Gone with such expressiveness was no coincidence: Marlene became an American citizen in 1939. When the USA entered the Second World War in 1941, she joined the American armed forces as a USO entertainer.
Her job was to entertain the soldiers and distract them from the war effort. How do you distract soldiers whose comrades are falling every day? From the American Department of Defense, Marlene and her entourage received clear instructions: Among those instructions was to cheer up the soldiers with the help of vocal performances.
Apart from the entertainment, Marlene was a GI like all the others: her job required her to always be on the front line of the war. In the process, she got into dangerous situations several times.

Marlene Dietrich performing for GIs during the Lorraine Campaign in 1944, taken from Wikimedia Commons

Lili Marleen 

Although it was mostly not chansons that Marlene sang for the soldiers on makeshift stages, there was one song among them that was to have an enormous influence on her later career – Lili Marleen. The song became such a Marlene trademark that it was renamed Lili Marlene on many records. It was originally the German singer Lale Andersen who made the song famous among the German soldiers.
The song is about a soldier who has to leave his two lovers named Lili and Marleen because he has been called up for front-line duty. The song is carried by the uncertainty whether the soldier will ever see his beloved again. 

The song Lili Marleen became an evergreen. It was part of all concert programs that Marlene Dietrich created worldwide.
In 1954 Marlene performed the song at the Café de Paris in London:

Marlene Dietrich was also recognized by representatives of classical music: in 1964, Marlene Dietrich and Herbert von Karajan met at an official reception in Berlin. Both artists had the idea of arranging a concert performance in Salzburg. When this project was supposed to be realized in 1967, however, nothing came of it – due to scheduling difficulties on the part of von Karajan and Dietrich. 

Marlene Dietrich’s repertoire comprised over a hundred songs, including songs in German, English, French and Spanish: wherever she was in the world, she knew how to touch the audience – whether in her native Berlin, in Rio de Janeiro, in London or in Las Vegas. Marlene Dietrich’s image as the grande dame of chanson art remains unbroken to this day.

Simon von Ludwig

Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin

Main sources: The book “Marlene Dietrich – Ihr Weg zum Chanson” by Helga Bemmann, 1990 Verlag Lied der Zeit and Marlene Dietrich’s memoirs “Ich bin Gott sei Dank Berlinerin,” 1987 Ullstein publishing house. The anecdote with Herbert von Karajan is taken from “Schreib. Nein, schreib nicht” – Marlene Dietrich / Friedrich Torberg correspondence 1946-1979″, 2008 Synema publishing house.

Cover picture: Marlene Dietrich with Marilyn Monroe in 1955, © Ky Olsen, taken from Wikimedia Commons

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