Two biographical films add interest to fall lineup
New York — THIS is an in-between period of the movie year, with the Labor Day openings behind us and the Christmas barrage yet to come. Taking advantage of the comparative lull in major releases, a couple of documentaries have ventured onto the commercial circuit, offering biographical glimpses of two vivid personalities: actress Marlene Dietrich and psychologist Carl G. Jung.
The driving force of ``Marlene'' is a tape-recorded interview with the legendary Dietrich, conducted by Maximilian Schell, who also directed the film. Since he's a movie star himself, I had feared the picture would be a mutual back-patting session, with the two celebrities setting each other up for self-serving anecdotes and reminiscences.
How wrong I was! Far from treating the project as a new kind of star vehicle, Dietrich held Schell at arm's length with regal determination. She did agree to be interviewed, and she answered the bulk of his questions with a grouchy sort of charm.
But in a truly weird decision, she refused to be photographed - forcing Schell to fill the screen with clips from old Dietrich films, yellowing photos, and shots of his technical crew hanging around with nothing to do except make sure the tape recorder is still running.
It's hard to say whether this stand-offish attitude represents supreme modesty or supreme self-indulgence on Dietrich's part. In any case, Schell has responded with an unassuming candor of his own - not hiding his conflict with Dietrich, but spotlighting it.
Near the beginning of the film, we hear a long sample of their bickering. Dietrich says she's tired of being photographed. Switching his strategy, Schell asks if he can film the objects in her apartment.
Dietrich says no. Schell points out that objects can't be tired of being photographed. Dietrich switches her strategy and says she doesn't mix her private and professional lives.
And so it goes, with both parties showing a wacky kind of courage: Dietrich by sticking to her guns, and Schell by letting us hear all this juicy stuff.
After all, he didn't have to let the world know how hard he fought, and how utterly Dietrich defeated him.
If it's not already clear that she's no marshmallow, other portions of ``Marlene'' spell it out.
The screen lights up with a celebrated scene from ``Dishonored,'' for example, with Dietrich (as Mata Hari) standing before a firing squad and, yes, putting on lipstick as the soldiers aim their guns.
It's a quintessential moment of Hollywood melodrama - yet the tape-recorded Dietrich suddenly speaks out and interrupts it, telling us it's positively awful.
And she doesn't stop there.
Emil Jannings, the revered actor who co-starred in ``The Blue Angel,'' was ``terrible'' and ``a ham'' throughout that fabled movie. ``The Scarlet Empress,'' one of her greatest vehicles, was ``edited all wrong.''
Josef von Sternberg, the director who made her a star, had a fatal weakness for ``kitsch'' - one of her favorite words, which she hurls like a spear at one target after another.
Schell fights back a little, puncturing some minor myths Dietrich flagrantly tries to promote. As she tells him she played only a tiny part in one forgotten film, Schell accompanies her words with a lengthy scene from the movie in question, flatly contradicting her. Even more pungent is a moment when Dietrich reminisces about being an only child - while a Schell assistant waggles an old photo in front of the camera, showing a very young Marlene posing sweetly with her older sister.
Near the end of the picture, both Schell and Dietrich escalate their attacks. He floods the screen with surreal and sarcastic images - movie cameras become prowling monsters; the decor becomes a demented parody of Von Sternberg's ``kitschy'' opulence. And she lashes into him verbally, admonishing him at one point to ``go home to Mrs. Schell and learn some manners!''
But cinema is essentially a director's medium, whatever a star like Dietrich might say, and ultimately Schell carries the day. He could shape and manipulate his images long after Dietrich's voice was fixed permanently on tape, after all, and in the end ``Marlene'' is an expression of his own personality as well as hers.
That it's a lively and often hilarious show is a tribute to both of them. That it's also a humane and even respectful portrait bespeaks a special cinematic talent on Schell's part.
``Matter of Heart,'' a portrait of psychologist and philosopher C.G. Jung, is more conventional in form but uncommonly thought-provoking in content - delving less into Jung's therapies than into his compassionate concern with human welfare, on both an individual and a global level.
Mark Whitney, who directed the film, uses such familiar documentary devices as off-screen narration, printed on-screen quotations, and interviews. The result is a lucid account of Jung's theories about myth, history, and the ``collective unconscious,'' as well as a touching visit with a dedicated and uncompromising thinker.