Josef von Sternberg, “The Blue Angel” / “Der Blaue Engel” (1930)
Famous as the movie that sent its leading lady Marlene Dietrich and director Sternberg (that “von” bit was added to his name later) on a fast ticket to fame and Hollywood, “The Blue Angel” is an interesting character study of a man who on a superficial level falls from a position of respect to degradation but on a deeper level recovers his humanity and becomes a matured man as a result. In the process, viewers learn much about the world the man lives in and his relationship to it. Some people find in this film an allegory about Germany itself and how it was buffeted by external global events and its relationships with its near and far neighbours but that might be taking the film’s moral too far. All the same, the story the film has to tell is more than one of “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”: the one who has to suffer must learn many lessons about human nature and life before he finds release from suffering.
The film is slow in its first hour and speeds up in its last patchy 30 minutes; this reviewer believes this is so in order to build up the central character of Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) as an upright but rather provincial and naive school-teacher at a boys’ school in a small German town. Highly educated and knowledgeable but at sea in dealing with other people, least of all unruly adolescents who dislike him, Rath discovers some of his students are regular visitors to a night-club called The Blue Angel where a sexy singer called Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is performing. Rath visits the night-club to shoo the students away but instead falls hard and heavily for the singer’s seductive charms. After defending his new love from the amorous advances of a rough sailor, Rath is sacked from his teaching job and ends up marrying Lola Lola (LL from this point on). He joins her performing troupe but his star starts on a downward slide to humiliation and poverty while his wife’s keeps on rocketing skywards.
Details of the story might be outdated but the basic plot and its central characters – the collision of a middle-aged bourgeois bachelor naif and the knowing siren who is fatally irresistible to men – are universal and timeless. Jannings and Dietrich simply act their pants off in the roles that were created especially for them. Dietrich as LL is very much a woman in control, a woman with whom men fall hopelessly in love and become her slaves. Her body language is masculine and dominant instead of feminine and submissive, particularly in scenes where she dominates the stage or drapes herself over a spiral staircase. Her clothes may be ridiculous with skirts flipped up to show off her crotch or her bum but she is so confident in her ability to charm men that her campy dress and accessories fade behind her beauty and cruel personality. Jannings’s achievement is in arousing viewer sympathy for a character who otherwise deserves contempt for his initial hypocrisy, emotional immaturity and inability to take control of his life, allowing others to boss him around and degrade him. How can Rath not see that associating with LL will literally reduce him to a clown? How can he not see that the woman is shallow and cares not a jot for him once his savings run out and he is no longer of any use to her? Jannings owns the movie with his acting, at once serious, comic and very tragic. (Though it’s worth remembering that he played similar characters in other films, notably “The Last Laugh”, “The Way of all Flesh” and “The Last Command”, the last two of which gave him Best Actor Oscars.) Near the end, Rath appears to experience an enlightenment moment in his final derangement and his instincts take over, guiding the prodigal professor out of the night-club through his hometown to a place of peace.
German Expressionist influences are quite strong in this film, particularly in some early scenes that involve shadow play and where buildings stand at strange angles and in scenes near the end where Rath gropes blindly in the dark. The film flows smoothly with shots that cleverly merge one incident with another, regardless of the passage of time between them: to take an example, Rath and LL’s engagement seamlessly blends into their marriage which itself skips over four years with shots of two calendar entries for 1925 and 1929 nearly merged together.
The one weakness about the film is that the odd relationship between Rath and Lola Lola looks lopsided: we see Rath’s puppy-like devotion to LL and understand where that comes from but the film never makes clear what LL sees in Rath. Perhaps she really is no more than a predator who enjoys toying with Rath’s affections for her. Perhaps he’s the father or uncle figure she’s never had and unconsciously needs. Perhaps she’s impressed by his idealism and the fact that he’s given up his career and everything he has just to be with her – because she knows she’d never be able to do the same for him or anyone else. Whatever, the movie might have been richer if it had examined LL’s past a little through slips of the tongue from her or other characters, or included some flashbacks of her past, to give viewers some idea of how she became a tough woman indifferent to love. We know not all women are like LL and she may not know what it is about her that attracts so much male attention; she just knows she has a power to manipulate men and get what she wants from them.
Apart from its leads, the movie is not very remarkable and is actually quite stodgy for a film about a cabaret singer. Modern audiences might find the plot unrealistic and quite skimpy in parts. “The Blue Angel” is best seen as a sympathetic character morality tale, neither condemning nor sentimentalising its lead characters. Viewers are left to wonder whether Rath would have been better off never meeting LL but then his character would remain limited in its narrow bourgeois comfort zone. Better to love LL and experience life in all its joys, sadness and degradation, and know what humanity and society are really like, than to pass her up but remain a child forever.