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With her talk “Creating the femme Fatale: Marlene Dietrich Under the Gaze”, Charlotte Kubicz, German Studies major at Agnes Scott College, introduced an attentive audience to the investigation of gender representation in popular cinema.

Kubicz compared and analyzed Marlene Dietrich’s role in the films “Blue Angel” (1930) and “Shanghai Express” (1932). Both were directed by Austro-American director Josef von Sternberg, but while “The Blue Angel” was produced during the German Weimar republic, “Shanghai Express” was produced in Hollywood. Part of Kubicz’ project is to see if the different cultural and national context of production for these two films also resulted in a different manifestation of the femme fatale or vamp concept.

After introducing and the concept of the femme fatale as a female role that disrupts the traditional boundaries between masculine and feminine identities, Kubicz focused on the different ways in which “Shanghai Express” presented the character of Shanghai Lili, played by Marlene Dietrich, as a vamp. Charlotte highlighted the lack of depth in many shots of Dietrich, the framing of her character in doors and windows, a strategy that almost made her look pasted into the mise-en-scène.

Charlotte’s presentation was a great example for close film analysis. In order to discuss the often quickly changing power dynamics between the female and the male leads, she showed the following sequence from “Shanghai Express” (scene begins at 5:55):

Charlotte pointed out how Marlene Dietrich’s character, despite her verbal declaration to not “detain” her former love intereest, arrests his attention nonetheless.

The presentation concluded with Charlotte comparing the marriage of the femme fatale in “Shanghai Express” with the tragic ending of “The The Blue Angel,” where the femme fatale Lola Lola (M. Dietrich) eventually drives her bourgeois lover to commit suicide. Charlotte discussed how different historical circumstances might have let to different resolutions to the conflicts between the sexes and the genders. While Lola Lola’s resistance to marriage in “The Blue Angel” can be read as a reflection of the gender discourses of the Weimar republic in Germany, the eventual marriage of Shanghai Lily might indicate the conservatism of 1930s America and the attempts at censoring Hollywood.

Charlotte’s clear and decisive presentation prompted several good questions and made me want to go back and watch these two films.