At the time of Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus’ release, times certainly were changing. Film audiences were still vibrating with the excitement of the advent of sound. WWI had only just waved farewell to arms and another global catastrophe loomed with the rise of the Third Reich. Cities were being rebuilt, as were family dynamics in the midst of an unprecedentedly seismic global catastrophe. Renaissances sprung up on every front, from Harlem to the household. Unsurprisingly then, despite insistence on a return to normalcy, change and instability became the standard of the time. In Blonde Venus, this insecure modernization perilously coexists with the equally precarious status quo. Ultra-modern pitted against the primitive, masculinity alongside femininity, white beside black, work versus leisure and other oppositions all point to the mutability of power in an age of uncertainty. In a memorable performance scene, in which Marlene Dietrich’s Helen Faraday gives a cabaret pantomime of African dance, she straddles the unexpectedly narrow gulf between power and subservience, primarily as they relate to gender and progress. In the dance scene in Blonde Venus, Sternberg utilizes film’s formal features to ape the shifting lines of status in an ever-modernizing society.
Power swings uneasily across gendered lines in this scene, where sexuality simultaneously empowers and endangers heteronormativity. Conventionally, the male is imbued with signifiers of potency: industry, progress, control – posturing him assertively over the female realm of domesticity, traditionalism and objectification. Yet within this scene, these associations become androgenized, and, even when relegated to their gendered bounds, culturally impotent. Helen’s re-introduction to the stage marks both a feminine victory and defeat; she must usurp the role of man-as-worker (her husband having been chemically castrated, so to speak, by the technology over which he should have dominion), but she also must cater to the lusts of her presumably male audience. Helen’s caravan of dancers’ entrance onto stage seems to emphasize the latter role, with the camera severing their heads and parading their gyrating torsos and undulating legs. Their rhythmic unity fuses the harem of exotic dancers into a spineless, carnal mass, maneuvered by the thrust of (man-powered) drums.
As the dancers’ ward, a shackled gorilla, and their audience, a jungle of gawkers, enter the frame, their hierarchal stance comes into question. These amazons, objects though they may be, have total authority over the hairy ape and over their rapt masculinized audience. In fact, the dynamism of the performers incapacitates their onlookers, who are visually camouflaged and pruned by the set’s foliage. As the women raise their pseudo tribal masks and march their prisoner towards camera and into the crowd, its position, too, comes into question. It is pushed and pulled by the chain-wielding dancers, it appears lost and confused amongst the roaring audience and it is impotent to resist the drag of its captors. Yet, it is the locus of the scene, the only distinguishable figure amongst a sea of masked women and anonymous spectators. As the dancers begin an apparently ritualized dance around the beast, it is elevated to a near deific status. Has primal man regained power over its harem? Clambering onto stage, opening his beastly mouth (in protest? Threat? Mocking laughter?), the beast removes his hirsute costume to reveal an effeminate hand, face, body – those of Helen Faraday. Thus, this feminine form assumes the masculine power of the deified ape, now transmuted into her strident display of sexuality. The beast has discovered tools: namely, that of her body. She is blatantly sexualized, emblazoned in her costume’s pubic plumes and adorned torso; however, as a performer, her masquerade is voluntary and positions her above the audience and their gaze. Even when objectified, Helen’s feminine sexuality earns her top billing.
The lines of power as they relate to progress, too, become blurred in the fervor of the dance scene. Within the scene, ‘male’ and ‘female’ lose their opposing connotations as powerful or weak, now delegated to ‘progress’ and ‘primitivism.’ Progress is cultivated, human, white, in control; primitivism is wild, animal, black, enslaved. Yet within this scene, the primacy of evolution over regression and the distinctions between such dichotomies are put into doubt. Opening the scene, two dark hands pound a potent, tribal rhythm on the drums. The shot cuts to the orchestra’s beaming black conductor, framed by the nightclub’s jungle-themed décor. His inane grin and crown of palm fronds displace him within the scene, undermining the control his natty suit, wielded baton and deliberate choreography might otherwise privilege him. Rendering him unsophisticated – inferior to the white audience who comfortably inhabit a tailored suit – he is reduced to minstrelsy, yet the need to unarm this “primitive” suggests his innate power.
The dancers’ and Marlene’s performance calls into question the supposed dominance inherent to modernity, miming savagery to show the flaws of cultivation. As the dancers shimmy into frame– again, they are a mass of headless, black bodies, gyrating in irreligious ritual – their visual recollection of their displacement from Africa (urbanity’s symbolic opposite) equates them to feral exoticness. Like rare birds, decorated in plumes no less, these women are animalized, made objects to be captured and to captivate. Thus, these simulated women-of-the-jungle are enslaved as objects of visual pleasure, yet also have agency over their urbanite audience, which is hypnotized by their rhythmic and aesthetic fascinations. The chains linking the women together also evoke ambiguous readings: are they shackled in slavery or united in solidarity?
Their ward, earlier read as man, can now be read as his evolutionary ancestor, an animal displaced from Africa. The women have complete sway over him, further confusing their role on the hierarchy of power; made animal by their modern viewers, they are nonetheless the tamers of an even wilder beast. As the chained ape and its leaders parade through the crowd, they remain largely in the shade of the artificial jungle and their metropolitan audience is bathed in shimmering whiteness. Yet white is not necessarily suggested as light nor as right; in fact the audience is in the dark, duped into believing their agency over the performers. Spectatorship itself indicated status; leisure time was privileged only to the masters of modern living, yet this performance retrogresses its audience, making them dumb onlookers of ancient rites. The performers trap their supposedly enlightened spectators in dumb paralysis, who unknowingly look on in carnal, not intellectual delight.
The music, fusing tribal beats and jazz, refers to opposing paradigms of “black music.” The primordial rhythm degenerates black culture, but the modernity of jazz immediately denies such a denunciation. As progenitor of an artistic renaissance, blackness colors modern dominion and distances itself from, via ironic conflation, the notion of primitivism as weakness. Blackness here re-appropriates displacement, celebrating a re-constructed Africa in the costuming and set; subverts primal weakness, taking prisoners, in the audience and in the ape, of its own and asserts cultural power, trumpeting black contribution to modern society with swinging refrain.
Uniting all signs of power’s growing mutability is the Blonde Venus herself: Helen Faraday and her transformative performance. Removing her costume and adopting a bleached Afro wig (bedecked with mock-African talismans), she becomes a masquerade of black culture. Yet, in her completed conflation of man with woman, animal with human, converting implied power in the process, her fusion of black with white cannot be read as mere masquerade. Instead, it aligns her, a figure of power, with a culture read by her audience as inferior. Moreover, as a performing ape-turned-sentient performer, she regains control of her masquerade, reducing her audience to knuckle-dragging onlookers.
The Blonde Venus — draped in fur or uncovered, masculine or feminine, sexual or sexualized, black or white, primitive or modern — divulges no absolute wielder of power. Instead, in her various roles and their conflictive and conflated stances, she merely questions with whom power lies, and whence comes history’s next victor. Not only is power in constant flux between supposed opposites on the scales of gender and of progress, but also, like the volatility of the era, these opposites in themselves are fluid and interchangeable.