Thirty-one years ago Marlene Dietrich’s life was all but over, writes Cary Gee. She lived alone, apart from her memories of a life that more than rivalled any film script, in Paris where she saw and spoke to virtually no one. All the more extraordinary then, that she should have reached out to a young Ute Lemper, then playing the role of Lola in the Blue Angel, a role that Marlene had made famous 60 years earlier.
The two women, one whose career had ended, one on the cusp of international stardom, spoke for three hours. Their conversation forms the basis for Lemper’s new one-woman show, in which she spectacularly revives Dietrich’s life and legacy for a generation too young to recall the screen legend’s luminosity.
Such is the connection Lemper shares with Dietrich that at times, Rendezvous with Marlene feels less like a tribute, and more like a séance.
Both women left their “Heimat”, albeit under very different circumstances, to pursue an international career. Both returned to a re-unified Germany, although, in Marlene’s case, not until after her death. The emotional toll Dietrich paid for her estrangement has never been satisfactorily explored until now.
Through the candid recollections of Dietrich, by this time too old to care about the effect her words might have on the living, and Lemper’s masterful interpretation of the songs Dietrich made famous, among them gems by Dietrich’s chief collaborator Frederic Hollaender, including Illusions, Boys in the Backroom and Lola, the many layers of Marlene are peeled back: screen siren (or was she in fact a Hydra?), chanteuse and famed cabaret artiste, but also emigrée, a captain in the US army, humanitarian, and rapacious lover of both men and women.
In an exceptional performance and an outrageous act of necromancy Lemper fully occupies Marlene’s complicated femininity and sexuality. Lemper’s only difficulty, as an exceptionally fine and distinct singer herself, is to fully inhabit Dietrich’s limited contralto on songs more associated with male singers, such as One for my Baby (And One More for the Road).
The show, simply staged among packing cases synonymous with a life lived on the move, and backed by Vana Gierig’s excellent band, opens with Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Such is the directness of Lemper’s lament you suspect only she knows the answer, but is at its most moving when Marlene/ Ute sings in her native German, or in her adopted French.
I suspect there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Marlene brought the first half of the show to a close, her face to the wall, as she sang Marie, Marie, although with tears in my eyes myself, I’m probably not the most reliable witness.
Throughout, Lemper directly and indirectly reminds us not just of Marlene’s heroism in standing up to the Nazis, but of the internationalism she shared with Lemper and without which neither star could shine quite so brightly.
On no account, says Lemper, must we allow neo-nationalism to turn the sky black. There is so much more to Rendezvous with Marlene than mere storytelling and songs, but if that’s all you desire then what stories, and what songs they are!
Keep an eye open for the return of Rendezvous with Marlene, planned for later this year, and you’ll be certain to find yourself Falling in Love Again.