The Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian / U.S., 1933):

Out of the country and into Berlin, the orphaned lass (Marlene Dietrich) nervously doffs off one bulky petticoat after another: "I’ve never seen a girl unpeel herself like an onion before," chuckles her tippling aunt (Alison Skipworth). The pensive sculptor across the street (Brian Aherne) declares himself "stuck" until he spots her perched on a bookshop stepladder, the muse is soon nude in the atelier. Freshly acquainted with passion, the devout heroine reads the Song of Solomon like a carnal paperback ("By night on my bed, I sought him whom my soul loveth..."); the dreams of domesticity that scare off her suitor are cruelly realized as marriage to a goatish old baron (Lionel Atwill). Rouben Mamoulian on Sternberg is a painter’s comprehensive copy, half emulation and half discovery: Dietrich in close-up holds a book under her chin and flips the pages like a Chinese fan, later she undresses behind a curtain while the camera swish-pans to plaster thighs and torsos (Buñuel remembers its cubism in Belle de Jour). In the cavernous baronial manse the story settles into an anticipation of Rebecca, complete with the raven glare of a jealous housekeeper (Helen Freeman) and a flaming finish, then the bravura spectacle of the jaded mondaine’s voice rising and plunging as she recognizes her beloved in the middle of a nightclub number. The idealized vision, as befits Mamoulian's analytical scrutiny of a star's image, is a chunk of rock molded this way and that, the commissioned statue that disturbs the peasant girl as much as her role as a loveless trophy wife. From sketch pad to marble, the sculpture is centrally positioned as a petrified goddess and a reduction of Dietrich herself, who finally offers her own judgment by smashing it to smithereens with an ax. "Art criticism of the highest order!" Cinematography by Victor Milner. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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