Josef von Sternberg, The Devil Is a Woman, 1935, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes. Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich).

THINGS THAT COME IN SEVENS: continents, deadly sins, wonders of the ancient world, and—as epic, depraved, and breathtaking as the preceding—the films Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg. This unsurpassable septet comprises The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). All will be screened at BAMcinématek on 35 mm, and all endure not only as the apex of the director’s lush, sumptuous, delirious style but also as cinema’s most fruitful episode of thralldom, though who was absorbed by—and obeisant to—whom was never quite fixed. This madness was hinted at when Sternberg declared, à la Flaubert on Emma Bovary, “Miss Dietrich is meI am Miss Dietrich.” Apparently, the star didn’t mind this grandiose claim by her director, telling Peter Bogdanovich in 1972, “I didn’t know what I was doing—I just tried to do what he told me.” But by the time of Maximilian Schell’s Marlene, his 1984 documentary on the actress (and a crucial footnote to this series), in which she refused to be filmed, she is much less self-abnegating, saying of Sternberg, “He was deliberately making life difficult for me.”

Singling out this director-actress collaboration in her landmark 1964 essay, Susan Sontag claims that “[c]amp is the outrageous aestheticism of Sternberg’s six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last, The Devil Is a Woman.” (The Blue Angel was shot in Berlin in German- and English-language versions; BAM is presenting both.) In Devil, the name of Dietrich’s character—Concha Pérez, “the toast of Spain”—is made all the more incongruous by her trademark husky Teutonic delivery; yet by film’s end, when she announces herself pseudonymously as “Manuela García” to customs officials, Dietrich clearly revels in the Castilian lisp required to pronounce the surname. As in The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Blonde Venus, Dietrich in Devil plays a singer who is obsessively lusted after by at least two men: “She’s the most dangerous woman you’ll ever meet,” one spurned suitor—to whom Concha had said, “If you had loved me enough, you would have killed yourself last night”—warns her latest conquest.

It is in Devil, perhaps more than in any other Dietrich-Sternberg film, that Kenneth Tynan’s observation that the actress “stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable” is most clearly borne out. Though she was always besottedly photographed—whether in soft-focus extreme close-up or in full body shots that showcased her iconic stockings and garters (The Blue Angel), tuxes and top hats (Morocco and Blonde Venus), and furs and panniers (The Scarlet Empress)—Dietrich never appears as simultaneously corporeal and remote as she does in her final project with Sternberg. Her visage suggests an ever-changing canvas of punctuation and diacritical marks. Her extremely plucked eyebrows evoke two parentheses pushed over. A spit curl on her forehead recalls a cedilla; spiraling in the other direction, this coil of hair looks like an upside-down question mark—the ringlet attached to an enigma never to be solved.

Melissa Anderson

“Blonde Venus: The Films of Dietrich and von Sternberg” runs April 4–10 at BAMcinématek.