A Weekend With Sylvia Plath and Marlene Dietrich

I spent the weekend reading Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman and watching Maximilian Schell’s documentary Marlene, which was an inadvertently complementary combination. Both pieces are concerned with the impossibility of telling the truth of someone’s life, but both are game attempts at doing so. And in both cases, the central characters under the microscope have the indecency to be querulous, demanding, imperious.

The great joy of The Silent Woman is in Malcolm turning her gimlet eye on the genre of biography via the microcosm of the Sylvia Plath cottage industry—and, in a departure from the usual narrative, from the perspective of Team Ted Hughes. Malcolm makes some serious points about the horrors that Hughes has been subjected to because of his unstable, estranged wife 30 years before (the book was published in the early ’90s), but also about the accidental truths we reveal when we tell stories about someone from our pasts: The tales told by Plath survivors have little to do with the poet and much more to do with the subconscious of the teller.

Likewise, Schell struggles with the recalcitrant Dietrich, still in control of her legacy in her 80s—to the extent that she refused to be filmed for the documentary. Her compromise was that Schell could use the recordings of their interviews, timed out at contractually stipulated 40 hours. When she chastises Schell for digging too deeply and outlines the typical documentary structure—early years, making The Blue Angel, going to America—he asks her if that sounds exciting. “I’m contracted to talk, not to be exciting,” she snaps.

Schell gamely tries to wrest some version of the unvarnished truth from Dietrich, who was a virtual recluse in Paris at that point, but she long ago jettisoned the moments that didn’t fit in with her legend, like her older sister. “It’s in my book,” she keeps saying, when she’s not saying “Nein.” The end result of this Germanic stubbornness and refusal of sentimentality is a mesmerizing breakdown in montage form on Schell’s part, in which images of Dietrich flash across the screen while snippets of her at her most argumentative blare. “Who is talking? she demands in one clip from a concert. “Please shut up.” She might as well be talking to Schell, or to anyone who dares challenge the carefully constructed carapace in which she had long ago cocooned herself. That carapace is similar to what Hughes’ total silence on the subject of Sylvia Plath accomplished, leaving everyone to bang their heads against the wall, futilely wailing for the truth. The truth, as both The Silent Woman and Marlene point out, turns out to have less to do with what happened and everything to do with what the storytellers want known happened.

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