In 1929, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl competed for the role of Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. According to Riefenstahl, von Sternberg was in love with her at the time but was seduced by Dietrich’s ‘vulgar and suggestive’ charm. According to Dietrich, von Sternberg barely knew Riefenstahl and was instantly captivated by her own appealing blend of diffidence and defiance, seeing a beautiful woman awaiting only a brilliant man to turn her into a star.
It’s impossible to know the truth about this moment, as both women endlessly reinvented their own pasts. What we do know is that the part of Lola Lola brought Dietrich instant fame and initiated a creative and sexual partnership with von Sternberg that quickly dominated both their lives. Dietrich’s success was all the more troubling for Riefenstahl because of their proximity: they lived on the same block and she could see into Dietrich’s windows from her roof garden. With von Sternberg out of her reach, she turned her attention to an even more powerful admirer. It was only two years later that she began the collaboration with Adolf Hitler that would bring her fame and infamy for the next seventy years.