Ihad​ misremembered The Scarlet Empress (1934), one of the thirteen Marlene Dietrich movies currently showing at the BFI. Or rather, I remembered vividly its latter stages, when Dietrich, playing the future Catherine the Great, rides her horse up the steps of a palace dressed as a Cossack in white fur and uniform, and demonstrates a ruthless appetite for rule. I had retained only the vaguest notion of the long first part, when Dietrich is an innocent child, a sort of babe in the Russian woods by way of Prussia. Of course, my failed recall is more than a little overdetermined. How could Dietrich ever be innocent? Even when she is playing the child part she asks: ‘When I grow up, can I become a hangman?’

The Scarlet Empress was the sixth film Dietrich made with Joseph von Sternberg. They made seven together between 1930 and 1935, the first in Germany, the others in the US. Sternberg said she attracted him with her ‘cold disdain’, her lack of interest in what she was supposed to be interested in. And it’s worth recalling the answer she once gave to a question about sex. Men demand sex, she said, and one has to comply from time to time, but ‘one can also do without.’ Man kann auch ohne. Do without men, that is, or without sex. The remark is interesting not so much for its truth or falsehood as for its bravura. It is a declaration of independence from a common form of unfreedom, what a song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill calls ‘sexual bondage’. So, when we think of Dietrich’s films, innocence is not the first word that comes to mind. But there is something unmarked about her persona, as if the ironic wisdom her characters often express comes from an infinite experience that left no trace.

Partly this is an effect of the writing. In Shanghai Express (1932): ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.’ A pretty good line in itself – Jules Furthman’s – but Dietrich manages a further implication: if she hadn’t wanted to change her name, she wouldn’t have done, no matter how many men were involved. In the same film, when her companion Warner Oland says, avuncularly, that in time she’ll weary of him, she says: ‘I’m weary of you now.’

It all starts with The Blue Angel (1930). Lola Lola is a nightclub singer who drives an old schoolteacher crazy, but she can’t help it. At least that’s what she says in the song ‘Falling in Love Again’: ‘Men flutter to me like moths around a flame/And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame.’ In the original German version she doesn’t say anything about falling in love again, or even for a first time. She says she’s made of love from head to toe, meaning some combination of sex and lethal magic. When she first sings the song, she looks relaxed and amused. When she sings it again something harsher has entered the performance, a form of denial perhaps. She doesn’t want to think about what she can and can’t help. Dietrich was still singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ forty years later as part of her live act. She stopped performing in 1975 and died in 1992.

As her American film career developed, Dietrich played what was effectively the same role four times: in Destry Rides Again (1939), The Spoilers (1942), Rancho Notorious (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958). Her character sings in a western saloon, or used to sing there and now owns it. She brings with her the sort of line that became her signature. ‘I’m sick of smiling,’ she says in Rancho Notorious. ‘Come back ten years ago.’ In Touch of Evil she tells the hero she can no longer read his fortune: ‘Your future’s all used up.’ The writer in the first case is Daniel Taradash, in the second Orson Welles. She is the urban exception in the wild country, the elaborately dressed lady with the fancy hairdo who knows more about life than any of the cowboys or prospectors. She is indispensable, if not to the West then certainly to the Western: the fashionable floozy, the woman with a past. But she is also, and it’s hard to think of another actress who could manage this aspect of the role quite so well, a kind of conscience in a world almost entirely without scruple. Her absence of ordinary respectability is an aspect of her virtue. In Destry Rides Again, she gets killed in the process of saving James Stewart’s life. In The Spoilers she uses her charms to lure the bad guy (Randolph Scott) to his doom. These gestures make us think again about what it is she has that looks like innocence but isn’t.

Let’s return to The Scarlet Empress for a moment. One of the first things we learn from the credits is that it has ‘a supporting cast of one thousand players’. Frequently it seems as if they are all on screen at once, and the dialogue is so sparse that it might be a silent film with noise rather than a talkie. There are still some good lines, though they’re not perhaps meant to be as comic as they are. Louise Dresser, playing the Empress Elizabeth, sounds exactly like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup when she says: ‘That’s the chancellor. Steals more money from me in a week than I collect in taxes in a year.’

Title cards tell most of the story, reminding us that 18th-century Russia was a place of ‘ignorance, violence, fear and oppression’. In case we don’t get it, there is an impressive montage of torture scenes, including various racks and beheadings, and a (barely) live human who is used as the clapper of a huge bell. Inside the imperial palace, where most of the film takes place, there are countless gargoyles – in uniform and on chairs, thrones, screens and doors – offering stiff competition to however many of the thousand extras happen to be on view. Dietrich is in the middle of it, and what at first looked like innocence, in hazy close-ups of her face and wide-open eyes, now manifests as an astonishing calm, as if she has diagnosed a whole lunatic universe and knows exactly how to take charge of it. While looking polite and demure she has won the army to her side, and organised the assassination of her husband. There is no emperor, the assassin explains, only the empress.

Vamp, floozy, martyr, wise woman, empress: what do they have in common? Nothing much, unless Dietrich is the link. Then they add up to a portrait of a person who knows – who has always known – that life is a too-ripe movie.

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