Fred Astaire once had a crit after a screen test that read “can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little”. Something similar for Marlene Dietrich might have read “can’t dance, can’t sing, can act a little”. Yet despite her perceived deficiencies she became a remarkable woman, not just a Hollywood star but a style icon and an iconoclast, a supreme diva of the 2oth century, a World War II glamour queen and even an LGBT hero. A new boxset Marlene Dietrich: The Universal Years includes four of her best performances Seven Sinners (1940), The Flame of New Orleans (1941), The Spoilers (1940), and Pittsburgh (1942).

As a singer she was as at home in Weimar Berlin cabarets in the 1920s as she was in mid-century Vegas where her piano player and arranger was Burt Bacharach. In 1963 she sang Pete Seeger’s anti-war hymn Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, often seen as a comment on the Vietnam war.

Dietrich worked with many of the greatest film directors including Hitchcock and Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder, Alexander Korda and Rene Clair. Her leading men ran the gamut from John Wayne to David Bowie. She was lionised by lesbians and gay men and was decorated for her work in World War II. Hitler hated her; for Madonna, she was a major inspiration.

Born in 1901 (she was as old as the century) to a middle-class family in Berlin, Maria Magdalene Dietrich was a pretty little girl, poised and clear-eyed. By her twenties she struggled with her weight and had a hard little face, not conventionally beautiful. She was determined, however, to make it in the movies at the then-burgeoning German studio UFA, where, the legend goes, she was discovered by Viennese-born director Josef von Sternberg. The association, according to her biographer Donald Spoto, “would change her life and destiny as well as the history of 20th century film”.

Von Sternberg was a genius – his Last Command (1929) helped Emile Jannings win the first Oscar. He cast Dietrich as Lola Lola the cabaret star and femme fatale in The Blue Angel (1930) which was one of the first talkies and was recorded in both German and English. Von Sternberg took Dietrich to America and with top Hollywood make-up and lighting people helped transform the ugly duckling into an exquisite if untouchable swan. He made seven films with Marlene as she was now named. Blonde Venus (1932) was a suggestive pre-code (uncensored) movie in which the star perfected her screen persona as a woman of the world, disdainful and indifferent to the men who fluttered moth-like around her flame.

Photographers like Horst and Hurrell captured her beauty, her perfect jawline and cheekbones. She became friendly with any number of 20th century luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Fleming and Noel Coward to name a few. Her lovers included men and women.

In 1930’s Morocco with Gary Cooper she played the cabaret star to his French Legionnaire. In one of the most memorable scenes in Hollywood history she appears in a man’s white-tie-and-tails and flirts with a female audience member, kissing her on the lips. It’s a ploy to show Cooper how brazen she is. Seeing this sequence 90 years later it is startling. Roles in other films like The Scarlet Empress (1934), in which she played a lipsticked Catherine the Great of Russia, suggested a dominatrix or at least a woman who could be cruel and uncaring to her lovers – a woman who breaks hearts and just walks out the door.

Later roles became mannered and camp; she had no great depth or range as an actress but she was almost always bewitching and unmissable. She “could wear exotic costumes with intimations of depravity,” wrote film guru David Thomson.

By the time of the Second World War she got fed up selling bonds at the Hollywood Canteen and set out in 1944 in the honorary rank of colonel, first entertaining the troops in North Africa with songs, mind reading (taught her by Orson Welles) and a musical saw act. She’d visit field hospitals and army camps in a mud-caked uniform and then sing her heart out to thousands of beleaguered GIs. The fact that she was a German opposed to Nazism was only in her favour. She travelled to liberated Paris and the notorious Belsen concentration camp.

By the 1950s, her film career was on the wane and she reinvented herself as a well-paid nightclub act in Las Vegas and toured her show from Moscow to Tokyo, Israel to South America singing in four languages. When she appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, she was unhappy with the pictures in the playbill and demanded that 20,000 copies be pulped.

In a floor-length swansdown coat and a skin-and-beads gown by Hollywood costumier Jean Louis she performed all her old songs. Despite her husky mezz0-baritone singing voice, audiences were entranced. What people came to see, according to Spoto, was “a monument made famous by transcending time; a beautiful, overpowering and utterly unapproachable being…”

After a brush with cancer she became wizened. The facelifts helped as did a skin-coloured, foam-rubber body suit under her gown which gave her the appearance of a much younger woman. The film roles diminished, often no more than a guest appearance. Among her best was Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) in which she played, opposite Spencer Tracey, the widow of a Nazi general.

She was Zelig-like. In 1963 she was on stage with the Beatles… ten years later she appeared as a batty baroness in the film Just a Gigolo opposite David Bowie.

The touring took its toll. Towards the end, this veteran of more than 50 films became a lonely recluse in her Paris apartment. Bedridden and as demanding as ever, she would phone friends at all hours.

The Museum of Film and Television in Berlin acquired much of beautiful, bisexual, bewitching Marlene Dietrich’s estate in 1993. The extensive collection provides a history of the actress and singer’s life and career. The archive includes letters and photographs, her make-up case and countless Dior outfits from her wardrobe.

Marlene Dietrich at Universal is available from the BFI from 25 Jan 2021