Jolly Cinema > 16:30


Rouben Mamoulian


Tuesday 27/06/2023


Original version with subtitles


Film Notes

After the failure of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored and Blonde Venus, the star, the director and Paramount Studios thought it was time to part company. Ever-controlling, Sternberg still had clout and it was he who suggested Mamoulian to take over as director of Song of Songs. In turn, Mamoulian found himself with a shaky script and an intransigent star persona that he had to mould into his milder and more ironic world.
The story, previously filmed twice in the silent period, is about Lily (Dietrich), a country girl who, after the death of her father, leaves for Berlin and is seduced by a sculptor (Brian Aherne). After the sculptor abandons Lily, she marries a depraved baron (Lionel Atwill). Living a loveless life, she falls into the arms of other men. Despite the obvious clichés, in Tom Milne’s view it is Mamoulian who brings that ethereal figure, whom Sternberg had placed on a pedestal as a goddess, back down to earth.
Victor Milner’s cinematography taps into a shadowy world of lust and exquisite desire and includes some of Dietrich’s most memorable entrances: a face obscured by elaborate hats is suddenly revealed in stunning glory as she turns her head towards Milner’s lens. Mamoulian uses stylised scenery and music to effect enchanting changes of tone, as in the opening sequence, where the grim graveyard segues into an  orchard  full of blossom, and thence into the menacing frenzy of a night train dashing towards Berlin. The past always returns to overwhelm the present via non-diegetic sound and superimposition of images, all achieved with pleasing fluidity. Ever partial to the use of statues in film, Mamoulian now had the perfect excuse to build the entire mise-en-scène around them and use the naked statue of Lily more like a female robot à la Metropolis – as the recurring motif of an ideal beauty which needs to be challenged or even destroyed. Here, there was a paradox at work: in Mamoulian’s films, the icon of perfection doesn’t need to be shattered in order to attain humanity – the two can co-exist. This was a one-time compromise Mamoulian had to make.

Ehsan Khoshbakht

Cast and Credits

Sog.: from the novel Das Hohe Lied (1908) by Hermann Sudermann and from the pièce The Song of Songs (1914) by Edward Brewster Sheldon. Scen.: Leo Birinski, Samuel Hoffenstein. F.: Victor Milner. Int.: Marlene Dietrich (Lily), Brian Aherne (Richard Waldow), Lionel Atwill (barone von Merzbach), Alison Skipworth (signora Rasmussen), Hardie Albright (Edward von Prell), Helen Freeman (signorina von Schwertfeger). Prod.: Paramount Productions. 35 mm. D.: 90’. Bn.