Blonde Venus | Horny on Main

Credit: Paramount

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Cathy Brennan

The beginning of 2021 saw the resurgence of a tiresome online discourse about sex in cinema. Should sex scenes be included in films, even if they don’t drive the plot? Some version of this asinine argument emerges on the Twitter timeline every now and then, seemingly with the express purpose to annoy Christina Newland. An oft repeated point was that onscreen sex is largely absent in mainstream cinema. Given that mainstream films inevitably reflect mainstream attitudes, I’d actually be rather grateful if such works shied away from the realm of Eros. Although that being said, having Thanos’ purple cock flash in my mind whenever he appears onscreen is not entirely unwelcome. Whenever a lack is identified in contemporary film culture, cinephiles look back to a time when that hole was filled. When it comes to sex, a case can be made for pre-Code Hollywood, which embraced the truth that women, like men, are horny as hell. Nobody expressed that truth so devilishly as the German actor Marlene Dietrich.

Compared to other sex symbols of pre-Code Hollywood, the embedded politics of Dietrich’s image burn with potency that derives from a queer energy which runs like a river through Hollywood history, chipping away at its heterosexual bedrock. Seeing her onscreen can make one pore over every inch of the frame, in the doomed hope that it might reveal a roadmap to salvation from our political moment. As rapturous as it is to lose oneself in the orgiastic splendour of a screen – whether you are watching Josef von Sternebrg movies or doom scrolling for the fiftieth time today – the end result is always a feeling of disappointment. There’s no answer except the one we make for ourselves, and even that seems woefully insufficient.

Informed by her background in the gay old Berlin of the 1920s, Dietrich’s pre-Code incarnations prance perilously around the borders of imperialist patriarchy; lines through which it defines itself; lines largely drawn by the old men of Europe throughout the 19th century. Her image remains so evocative because those borders, while occasionally redrawn, largely remain in place today. An assortment of glamorous women with a tinge of sin, the way Dietrich’s characters reconstruct their image draws attention to the arbitrary nature of these boundaries, and the ways in which they ascribe value to us as human subjects. Perhaps that is why she draws our gaze in the first place: she represents the possibility of liberation from the diktats of our social realities.

Dietrich is a figure who exists in a state of near-constant re-articulation. Her first action as a sex worker in Dishonored (1931) is to pull up her stocking. Facing a firing squad at the end of the film, she pulls it back down and touches up her lipstick. Dishonored sees Dietrich go from sex worker to spy; both are roles that rely on performance, exist beyond the purview of regular society, and entail a certain amount of danger. As a sex worker she is reviled by the old men of Europe, but as a spy she is invaluable to them. In Blonde Venus (1932) Dietrich moves in effortless mystique from the dingiest shelters in America, to the most glamorous clubs of Paris. The temporal magic of film makes that transition in less than a minute; yet it looks like Dietrich willed it into being as a sorceress.

Dietrich revels in the erotics of ambiguity. Such an approach flies in the face of the fascist aesthetics that came to dominate her home country in the 1930s. Writing for Sight & Sound in 1992, German film scholar Gertrud Koch favourably contrasted Deitrich to the “rigid marches” of her Nazi contemporary: Leni Riefenstahl. The sensibilities of Nazi art, typified by the works of Arno Breker, shrank the possibilities of human existence, while Dietrich pushed the boundaries of what a person could be. In pre-Code Hollywood, she could represent a freedom that was all-too quickly vanishing across the Atlantic.  At the same time, this exotic flexibility could also be moulded into prejudices more attuned to the American mindset. 

The striking Hot Voodoo sequence in Blonde Venus derives its power from signifiers loaded with anti-black racism. Dietrich’s character, Helen Faraday, is a wife and mother who returns to the cabaret stage. That first club performance opens with a gorilla wandering off the stage and tentatively mingling with the crowd, violating the boundary between the performance and its audience. Returning to its rightful place, flanked by tribal dancers, the creature removes its hand to reveal a slender white hand beneath the black fur. It is Dietrich! The sequence fuses Dietrich’s irrepressible sexual appeal with a deeply racist politics of desirability that would fully erupt on screen a year later with King Kong (1933). It is a framework that generates racist associations through the interplay between a literal white femininity and a rapacious masculinity coded as Black. The end result being that Black is an animal, and a threat to the white human.

These racist visions are not confined to Blonde Venus. In Morocco (1930), the first time we see Dietrich in drag is not on the stage but in the dressing room. We enter this private space via a shot of two dolls which belong to Dietrich’s character: one Asian and one Black. Sternberg then cuts to a medium shot of the tuxedoed Dietrich looking at herself in a handheld mirror. The dolls represent the way white culture views non-white people through crude caricature, creating categories of people and then assigning innate characteristics to those categories. As dolls they are cultural objects, not based in any objective reality, but instead the reality constructed by white supremacist ideology. If something can be constructed, then surely it can also be changed, or even destroyed. The cut to Dietrich offers a glimpse of potential. By highlighting the arbitrary nature of gendered signifiers, we become aware that categorising people based on their sex is an exercise fraught with uncertainty. The racist cultural authority in the dolls may therefore also be undermined with alternatives. This is not an attempt to glom a progressive interpretation onto Dietrich in order to justify an uncritical devotion to her image. Rather, the placement of the dolls within the film offers an opportunity to tease out a critique of the ideological apparatus (in this instance Hollywood) that constructs the film.

It is easy to stare longingly at the pre-Code era when it feels like the increasingly corporate film industry today has sucked the passion out of on-screen experience, despite superficial gestures at a progressive attitude. However, a surface-level imitation of Marlene Dietrich’s image is not the remedy. The lesson we should take from pre-Code Dietrich is that images are mutable, offering liberatory visions of what we can be. Our art should lean into that as much as possible. Yet the racism and Orientalism in pre-Code Dietrich (what is Morocco, if not Orientalist fantasy persevering?) cautions us to remain mindful of the dominant ideologies which may still influence our image-making.