This offbeat German melodrama directed by David
Hemmings stars David Bowie as Paul, a young Prussian War veteran
who returns home to Berlin after World War I. After drifting from
job to job, Paul eventually finds his niche renting himself out
as a dancer for war widows who long to forget their sadness. Kim
Novak sizzles as a sad widow, with German bombshell Maria Schell
as Paul's mother and Sydne Rome as his old sweetheart-turned-cabaret
singer. Marlene Dietrich makes a poignant cameo (it was her last
film role) as an aging baroness, singing the (German) title song,
Schoner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo.
This film was about Berlin, shot in Berlin and financed
partly by Berlin. However, none of the principal cast were from
Berlin, except for Marlene Dietrich a native Berliner, who was filmed
in Paris but editing makes her seem to be in Berlin with David Bowie.
German Press claimed she was paid $250,000 for two days' work.
Few people in or out of the film industry found it
easy to believe producer Joshua Sinclair when he announced to the
press, late in 1977, that Marlene Dietrich was about to break her
retirement and self-imposed isolation within her Paris apartment.
She had, Sinclair continued, agreed to appear on screen in her first
speaking role in eighteen years, in the German-English film Just
a Gigolo, with rock star David Bowie. Lonely for precisely the human
contact she paradoxically but insistently rejected, she also found
irresistible a salary of $250,000 for two half-days of work in a
Paris studio, to which the sets for her scene would be transported
On a bitterly cold morning in February 1978, she
arrived on time for work, 'her jaw set and her shoulders hunched
with determination,' as an eyewitness recalled. Dietrich walked
slowly, unsteadily, because of her failing eyesight, clinging constantly
to the arm of make-up artist Anthony Clavet. She looked, quite simply,
like a wizened old lady. Two hours later, her make-up painstakingly
applied, she emerged from a makeshift dressing room wearing a costume
of her own design: a wide-brimmed black hat with a delicate but
strategically concealing veil, shiny black boots, white gloves and
a black skirt and jacket - everything just right for her brief appearance
as the Baroness von Semering, manager of a ring of Berlin gigolos
just after the First World War. Director David Hemmings, producer
Sinclair and a small crew awaited, and in a few moments one of her
two brief scenes were easily photographed
Next morning, Dietrich returned for the more difficult
second task - to sing the film's title song, which was to be heard
near the end of the picture. 'I will sing one chorus of that horrible
old German song in two seconds flat,' she told Hemmings and Sinclair.
Everyone stood by nervously, for it was uncertain she had the strength
or the breath to fulfil the promise
But an astonishing transformation then occurred,
attested by those present in the studio that wintry day. First she
was photographed in close-up, the hat and veil deliberately almost
hiding her eyes as she stood to one side of the set, an empty hotel
dining room. Then she walked - cautiously but unaided - towards
pianist Raymond Bernard, and standing proudly, she began to sing.
Far from offering the perfunctory delivery of a song she disliked,
Marlene Dietrich sang with heart-rending simplicity:
Just a gigolo: everywhere I go
People know the part I'm playing
Paid for every dance, selling each romance
Every night some heart betraying
There will come a day youth will pass away,
Then what will they say about me?
When the end comes, I know,
They'll say 'Just a gigolo,'
And life goes on without me
Nothing she had done on stage or screen over a
period of sixty years could have prepared witnesses that day (or
viewers of Just a Gigolo since then) for her astonishing rendition
of this simple confessional songs. On the words 'youth will pass
away,' there may be heard a tremor of sadness in her voice that
was without precedent in any prior recording or theatrical appearance
- a moment of exquisite pathos too genuine to have been concocted
from the usual counterfeit emotion.
And when she came to 'life goes on', the voice became
plangent, almost a whisper as she managed, to poignant effect, an
octave. In only one take, the scene and the song were captured forever.
There was a moment of reverential silence round her, and then the
bystanders broke into applause; many of those who knew her films,
recordings and live stage appearances could be seen brushing away
Unable to see them across the bright studio lights,
Marlene Dietrich, in her seventy-seventh year, nodded and found
her way back to the cramped dressing room. An hour later she was
alone again, back at her apartment on the fashionable Avenue Montaigne,
just opposite the grand Plaza-Athenee Hotel*.
Except for a very few visits to doctors and hospitals,
she never again left this residence.
Side note: She was born in 1901 in Schöneberg
the district Bowie and Iggy Pop called home in the Berlin
* Another coincidence - Bowie's hotel of choice when
FROM BRIXTON TO BERLIN
Michael Watts reports from the German film
set where David Bowie is making Just A Gigolo
By Michael Watts
BAD BOYS IN BERLIN
David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the terrible things
an audience can make you do.
By Chris Hodenfield