To what extent can we call Marlene Dietrich’s character in this, one of Josef von Sternberg’s most cultic films, “homosexual”? Like many other queer characters in film and literary history, she appears to be straight—she harbors a crazy passion for a legionnaire played by Gary Cooper, and the film ends with her stalking out into the blazing desert sands after him. Some might say that her queer credentials here can be chalked up to the iconic scene (the best in the film) in which she does a nightclub act immaculately dressed in a black tuxedo and top hat, and saunters through the audience, flirting with both the men and the women (she even kisses one female spectator gently on the mouth). It’s an electrifying moment, not just because we’re watching her get away with something that would soon be forbidden in Hollywood films under the Production Code, but also because Dietrich bends gender so glamorously: she makes a sexy man and a sexy woman.
She’s also initially resistant to Cooper’s advances, telling him that she’s lost her faith in men, which could suggest a certain pan-sexual flexibility on her part. But I would argue that queerness in Morocco has less to do with a particular character’s sexual proclivities than it does with relationality, atmosphere, and style. The very mood of the exotic, Orientalist Morocco conjured up in von Sternberg’s film is saturated with a queer frisson. As such, the very air is heavy with a certain decadent sexuality that stands opposed to the image of clean-cut, freshly scrubbed heterosexuality that’s pushed by dominant culture. Sexual relations in Sternberg’s Morocco are roundabout, unresolved, meandering. Dietrich’s woozy air and low, tremulous voice embody this. It’s not that she reads as lesbian; she’s queer in a more abstract sense, which perhaps accounts for why she has been an idol for gay men as well as gay women.