By L.S. Klepp
Updated October 30, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Marlene Dietrich was born in 1901 and died in May of this year. If, as Andre Malraux claimed, she ”is not an actress like Sarah Bernhardt” but a ”mythical figure,” her myth is of a piece with the 20th century itself, and she’s the Goddess of Smoldering Cynicism or Coldly Ironic Pathos or one of our other unique commodities. In the early films directed by Josef von Sternberg, such as The Blue Angel (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), she’s like a strapping, long-legged, blond Wagnerian deity come down in the world, perhaps forced to sing torch songs and turn tricks in a squalid cabaret but still looking as disdainful, invulnerable, and sleekly alluring as any immortal. She was, as Steven Bach remarks in his thick new biography, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, the most famous German woman of the century. And it’s appropriately ironic that even the most famous German man of the century, Adolf Hitler, couldn’t resist watching her films in private while Nazi propagandists were thrashing her for polluting Aryan thoughts. She came of age as the Weimar Republic emerged in 1919 out of defeat, and she was the female incarnation of Weimar’s mocking detachment and sexual ambiguity. Her Germany was the cynical, sinister, pleasure-seizing Germany of survivors, and perhaps her image retains its power because the 20th century is a century of survivors, and Weimar’s mix of disillusion and desperation is in the cultural air we breathe.

Bach is thorough with a light touch. Here is Dietrich at 20, a revue performer and aspiring film actress already followed by curious Berlin crowds, wearing, according to one witness, ”a monocle and a boa, or sometimes five red fox furs” or ”wolf skins, the kind you spread on beds.” And here is Dietrich spread on beds, with the numerous lovers whom Bach has traced, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Erich Maria Remarque, George Raft, Jean Gabin, and several women whose names Bach doesn’t mention. Here is her husband, Rudi Sieber, who remained the love of her life although they remorselessly and divorcelessly parted ways in the late ’20s, and her self-proclaimed inventor, Von Sternberg, whose obsession she reciprocated with an affair and whose career went to pieces after she left him to work with other directors.

We see her in London in 1936 replying to a mysterious Nazi emissary who tries to lure her back to Germany (”Never!”), cheerfully suffering frostbite and scabies while entertaining Allied troops at the front in 1944, performing through pain and broken bones as a world-touring chanteuse in her 60s and 70s. Through it all she remains formidable and self-possessed, as devoted to her sense of duty (as mother, grandmother, anti-Nazi, and curator of her own legend) as her police-officer father was to his.

Bach studied with Von Sternberg, worked as a producer for United Artists, and wrote the 1986 best-seller Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven’s Gate; he is particularly good at evoking and assessing Dietrich’s roles, performances, and films. Bach has ferreted out the German silent films she later denied having made, and the book has a complete filmography, a bibliography, and a transfixing array of photographs. The writing is suave and witty, though you may feel it’s your duty to wince at some of the puns (”the calm before the storm troopers,” etc.). The history waiting in the wings sometimes lurches in as melodrama, but this is a more discerning book than most Hollywood biographies. It’s neither a flack-driven attempt to gild the legend nor a resentment-filled attempt to tear it down. It’s the candid monument that the brazen goddess deserves. A-