Somewhere along the yellow-brick blog I noted that Marlene Dietrich, one of my favorite actresses, was never at her most convincing playing a virgin, but now I must eat those words, having just seen for the first time her performance as Lily Czepanek, a country girl who, upon being orphaned by the death of her father, is sent to Berlin to live with her aunt, in Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song of Songs. Lily is now as devoted to the memory of her father, who was devout, as she was to the living soul. The one thing she has brought with her, apart from some clothes, is the Bible from which she read to him each night, especially the 117 verses of The Song of Songs of Solomon. Lily’s father, then, was a religious man whose sensibility tread a tender and erotic line—one that possibly recalled his deceased wife, Lily’s mother, and required the suppression of his most problematic feelings for his daughter. Lily’s innocence coincides with her ignorance of all of this. Lily simply knew that the father she adored loved biblical poetry. Dietrich, along with Garbo the most knowing of actresses, is poignant as innocent Lily. Moreover, Lily’s falling in love, her first love affair, and her rotten marriage to another man all draw superlative acting from Dietrich—humane, ferocious, magical.
The man with whom she falls in love is Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne, charming), a dedicated sculptor who sculpts her in marble while she is posing nude. They become lovers; but Lily’s mere mention of fidelity, marriage and—egads!—children frightens off the footloose hand-chiseler, who hands off Lily to rich Baron von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill, magnetically repellent—you sort out the oxymoron), who is old enough to be Lily’s father. Once her aunt kicks her out for immorality, but really because the Baron has generously bribed Auntie to do so, and to spite Richard, Lily marries the Baron, her flesh cringing at his touch. Like so much in this compressed and elliptical film based on Hermann Sudermann’s 1908 novel Das hohe Lied, the crucial drama, because it is purely interior, occurs off-screen: the Baron’s lecherousness retroactively sheds new dark on her image of her father, robbing Lily of her last vestige of residual innocence. Convinced that the Baron will kill her for infidelity, Lily flees his palatial domain for the gutter, rising to become a Sternbergian chanteuse in a hot spot, where Richard, who has been searching for her, eventually finds her. He takes her back to his studio/apartment, where she takes an ax to his statue of her, decapitating it and lopping off a hand—a stunning scene that whacks some of the bloom off of subsequent movie scenes, in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964), that borrow from it. This assault on Richard’s idealization exhausts the real woman, leaving Lily on the floor. Richard stoops to take her up in his arms. The sculpture is shattered; the woman herself might yet mend.
Some object to what they consider an impossibly happy ending to material destined for tragedy. But it all works beautifully, thanks to Mamoulian’s liveliest filmmaking ever, Victor Milner’s black-and-white cinematography and, above all, Dietrich’s clear, unerring charting of an innocent’s coming-of-age.
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