Dishonored is probably the least talked about of Sternberg’s seven films with Dietrich. It has never been released on DVD in the US until now. TCM has put it out on their TCM Vault Collection label along with the other Sternberg/Dietrich that had never had a DVD release in the US, Shanghai Express (1932), which oddly enough may be the most popular of the seven films. Now all seven are finally available on Region 1 DVDs, although sadly spread across several labels rather than presented as a coherent set that constitutes one of the great glories of film history.
To say that Dishonored is an absurd story is practically redundant, because all of the Sternberg/Dietrich films have an air of absurdity. They are highly artificial constructs that explore the madness and humiliation of love and lust, supremely controlled examinations of the uncontrollable irrationality of human nature. The irrationality is where the absurd enters the picture, and these films have a fair amount in common with the Surrealists, who were obsessed with the irrational. Dishonored made me think again and again of Magritte with its strange juxtapositions: “I think of death as a beautiful young woman wearing flowers.”
Dietrich plays a kind of prostitute or mistress in all of these films, but the perspective on her prostitution varies hugely from film to film. In Dishonored it is a heroic perspective, unexpectedly enough. (Although the situatation is somewhat similar in Blonde Venus (1932), where she has to become a prostitute in order to save her husband’s life.) It’s set in Austria in 1915 in the middle of World War I. Her husband has died in the war, and Dietrich’s character, who we only learn in passing halfway through the film is named Mary, has turned to prostitution not because she needs the money, but as a patriotic gesture to entertain the troops! It is her patriotism that leads the head of the secret services (Gustav von Seyffertitz) to recruit her as a spy with the codename X-27. It is X-27’s job to use her body as a lure to trap Russian spies.
A lot of people see this film as a comedy, both because the basic conceit is so silly and because there are a number of funny scenes, particularly one in which Dietrich channels Harpo (also under contract to Paramount at the time) while playing a dumb peasant charwoman. It also seems funny because again and again the level of absurdity is cranked up to eleven, but one reason Susan Sontag saw these films as prime examples of camp is that Sternberg always treats the underlying emotions dead seriously, no matter how bizarre and unreal the situation. Here we are given a metaphor of romantic relationships as the relations between spies and traitors, with deceptions, hidden motives, scheming, second guessing, and the threat of betrayal and death the name of game in both spycraft and love. The spies-as-lovers theme is similar in nature to Hitchcock’s Notorious (1947), although in this case Hitchcock actually takes it in a more perverse, less farcical direction than Sternberg.
Sternberg is always more sympathetic to the women than to the men in his films, and only partly because he seems to have had masochistic tendencies. Everybody is humiliated, but the men tend to be humiliated because they’re blind to everything but their own fears and desires, while the women are humiliated because they are disrespected by men. X-27 is brilliant and worthy of devotion, but the men around her can only see her as a weapon to use against each other in their ridiculous war. “It is now my duty to inform you that the profession of a spy is the lowest on earth,” the head of the secret service tells X-27. “Lower than anything you’ve ever experienced.” In other words, it’s lower than being a prostitute, perhaps because prostitution is an open exchange of services for money, while spying is all about deception and entrapment. “The more you cheat and the more you lie, the more exciting you become,” says the Russian spy, Colonel Kranau. This is what these men want from X-27 more than anything: to be humiliated and disgraced by her. When she rebels by falling in love, they punish her for having feelings. Sternberg protested that Paramount forced the title on him, that there is no dishonor in what X-27 does, but it’s easy enough to argue that she is, indeed, dishonored by the men she works for.
“Did you like this masquerade as well as my last one?” the colonel asks X-27.
“You’re still a clown,” she says.
Spies use disguises to deceive, and Dishonored shows us many faces of X-27. Femininity itself is treated as a series of masks and poses, and we see Dietrich’s face larded with makeup and then stripped shockingly to bare skin. The closeups range from almost phantasmagorical to utterly naturalistic. The acting styles go through the same range, with spasms of completely unnaturalistic acting that remind us that this is only a show — only to fool us once again with a quivering piece of Dietrich’s subtle vulnerability. She really is brilliant in this, using her face and body to communicate small shifts in feeling and mood. Acting is a method of deception, too, and Dietrich is a mistress of masks. Sternberg is too, and he achieves one of his greatest lighting effects in this film, when he uses light to paint a death mask on her face after she chooses love over honor.
There are mysteries to this film that I still don’t understand. For example, why is there a scientist in the antechamber of the secret service command? He fusses with a chemistry set, and he delivers messages to the commander. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the laboratory to be set where it is, and nothing is created in it, or at least nothing that has any bearing on the story. Again, it seems like a surreal element, something out of a dream. It calls into question the reality of anything we’re seeing — perhaps another gentle reminder that it is all a deception and that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be fooled. But we allow ourselves to be fooled anyway, because we want to be fooled, because we can’t help it. We are not rational creatures, and life is but a dream.