Films like Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus demonstrate the absurdity of the moral policing of the production code. With the world siphoned from shades of grey to convenient black and white, life was simplified to the point of alienation. In Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich plays Helen, a former nightclub dancer with a dying husband, who goes back to work in order to pay for his surgery. Caught in the underbelly and left to her own devices, she falls for another man and goes on the run with her son to escape her heartbroken husband who wants to take full custody of the young boy.
Torn between two men, Helen’s dilemma doesn’t present itself in absolutes. Made during the precode era, Sternberg’s film demonstrates that love and desire rarely present themselves as options of right or wrong. Years later, Helen’s choice would be made easier, as she would either be a black widow spider luring two men to their deaths, or one of them would be an obvious heel. During the production code, no man who spends his day at a nightclub could be seen as a capable mate until he’s reformed, and a woman dancing in a nightclub would have to be saved before she could be treated as a good person. Any woman who would dare stray from her husband would be swiftly called a monster, even if her husband was abusive. In Blonde Venus, Dietrich is torn between two good men — two men who love her, who treat her well and who provide for her. Her love story doesn’t fit into the square peg that Hollywood would demand just a couple of years later.
The film’s second half demonstrates an astute social message about the struggle of being a woman in the modern world. Not only does Helen get punished severely for ever straying from her husband, she becomes forced into a desperate life. On the run, mother and son hitch rides on hay carriages and hide out in decrypted hotel rooms as they try to forge a new life. Increasingly beaten down, Dietrich powerfully channels a mother’s devotion to her child and the incredible fear of having her child taken away. Helen’s husband, heartbroken after finding his wife with another man, seems ruthless without becoming a villain. His actions are rooted in deep pain that doesn’t necessarily excuse his obsession but makes sense of them. Both characters are caught up with impulsive decisions that lead to heartache, but that doesn’t make either of them evil.
Dignity plays an important role in much of Sternberg’s work. Characters who fall into disrepute retain their humanity as long as they are able to hold onto some semblance of their moral character. In the Blonde Venus, not only does Helen end up making the choice to give up her son to ensure his happiness, she raises herself from pathetic drunk to headlining act in Paris. Even at her lowest moment — throwing away money and slurring her way through a cheap woman’s club — she retains the threads of humanity which help her rise again. In Sternberg’s world, nobody can even fall so low than someone who had so much to lose in the first place.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.