Sexy, sultry and seductive. Three words that can describe both tonight’s feature and its leading lady. Dark, downtrodden and destitute. Three words that can also describe tonight’s feature and its leading man. For tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we enter the seedy underworld of the bordello nightclub, where young men go to witness the delights of the flesh and old men go to ruin. Where the girls dance, drink and sing on stage, just out of reach but always available, and where reputations are made and destroyed in the wink of an eye. Grab a drink and take your seat stage right as the curtain pulls back on tonight’s feature presentation The Blue Angel.
I first saw Der blaue Engel, as it’s known in its native German tongue, some twenty years ago on Eureka’s very own VHS release and have been captivated by it ever since. There is something uniquely powerful and timeless about the story and the way that it is presented. It’s not a particularly original tale, even at the time of making, but what it did have was a trio of stars that worked magic together, the background chemistry flooding the onscreen personas. It is also famed for being a number of ‘firsts’. It was one of the very first European films to be made with sound. The song ‘Falling in Love Again (can’t help it)’ was first performed and became synonymous with its singer. It was also the director and leading lady’s first film together, and whose collaboration brought about a further five films each new one capitalising on the success of the former and leaving a legacy that has still not been matched. The director was Josef von Sternberg and his leading lady was, of course, Marlene Dietrich. By 1929, von Sternberg was rising to the zenith of his creative prowess. Already lauded with accolades for his 1928 film The Last Command, it was his foray into ‘talkies’ and specifically his directing of Dietrich, which cemented his reputation. Indeed the stars were aligned for it was a combination of interwoven threads that saw The Blue Angel even made at all; for it was a reuniting of Emil Jannings and von Sternberg that made the project in the first place for the two had fallen out very badly on their last film (the same one that won them so much accolade, The Last Command) and it was only Jannings’ insistence that von Sternberg direct him in his first ‘talkie’ that saw it come to fruition.
The pair’s initial idea, a story about Rusputin, failed to ignite the passion for either of them and at von Sternberg’s suggestion they began a ‘free’ adaptation (by which means there was no royalties paid, in much the same as Murnau did for Nosferatu in 1921) of the Heinrich Mann story ‘Professor Unrat’. The narrative was filleted and restructured to simplify the moral themes, to enhance the anguish of the titular character and climaxed with a completely new ending, the resultant film baring little resemblance to the original prose. With both parties now satisfied the casting began for the call girl needed to bring about such calamity for the school teacher. This was where Dietrich came into play; for whilst she had been around for a number of years, on both film and theatre, they were mainly bit parts and rarely speaking. Her screen test footage, which still survives and makes up one of the extras in this set, displays a soon to be siren of the screen. When lit correctly the camera simply loved her features and she knew how to play to it. With her presence and von Sternberg’s eye for cinematography these two would go on to make cinema history, and it all started here, in 1930, with The Blue Angel, where they first the world what they had. So whilst it would be Dietrich that became the international star on the back of the film, in actual narrative terms, she is still very much the co-star; the picture belongs to Emil Jannings whose soulful performance is one of heart-breaking pathos. And it is with him we shall first look at in our dissection of the film, expect then a few spoilers.
The film opens to a city waking up at dawn. The opening camera shot overlooking the town square is remarkable in its depth, with clear framing to take into consideration extreme fore, fore, middle, back and distant background; all within the confines of a studio set. There is a real sense of 3D to this image as it draws the eye into the frame, this is true of most of the compositions set out in the film, there is clutter to the screen, a claustrophobia if you will, even in these outside sets, that are both open and tight at the same time; watch for it throughout the run time, especially in the stage dressing rooms. The camera zooms back as a shutter opens to reveal a poster of Lola Lola, an exotic dancer in the local speakeasy club, The Blue Angel, as a shopkeeper landlady throws water over the image before starting to wash the window it is set in. As she does so, she takes stock of the image, then turns and tries to emulate the pose. Pioneers of the cinematic art, such as the early German Expressionist movement, crafted every scene to tell a story, each picture requires study and contains information to enhance the form, and this film is no exception. This beautifully constructed opening scene shows so much about the character of Lola and we haven’t even met her yet – she is someone that women both revile (throwing the water) and want to be (copying the pose) which creates a complex set of ideas, a duality, which will be examined even further later in the film. We then close in to the local college, where a house maid calls for the ‘Professor’ to wake up for his breakfast. We follow her into the room, it is a mess, papers and books everywhere, lit by gas light, as she leaves the tray, calling again for the occupant to wake. Without even seeing him, we already know much about our main character - he is called Professor Immanuel Rath, he is absent minded and reliant on others to help him. When we first see him he is immaculately dressed and stern faced. He whistles to his pet bird, but is perplexed when it does not return his call and upon investigation he discovers it dead in its cage. He cradles it with a somewhat bewildered look on his face, the house keeper comes in, takes it, exclaims “It’s been quiet for days” then incinerates it in the fire while Roth looks on. He is a kind man, but forgetful, having to check his pockets several times before he ventures forth into the day. Jannings the character actor was a master of his craft by this time, indeed he was the first recipient of the Best Actor award at the very first Academy Awards (for The Last Command, two years before) and proved that to act one did not have to be wild and exaggerated as many of the silent era film stars were, but he understood the nuances of body language and facial expression – look at him as he tentatively opens the cage to the bird, how his face coveys both confusion and sadness together; all without words. Indeed he is considered to be the finest character actor of the silent era.
In his class room the students are a bit of an unruly bunch, they gather around a postcard of Lola Lola, each taking turns to blow the real feathers that make up her skirt, so they can glimpse the bare thighs below. One even takes to drawing graffiti on the teacher’s book, but it only takes a quick cry from the class swot and the boys all jump to their seats as Professor Roth enters. We already know much about Rath and how he behaves, he is kind, but forgetful, demands respect from his students but as an unruly lot they are not without pushing the boundaries. He barely reprimands them for the graffiti, instead pulling out a timid boy to erase it, rather than go at the class. We therefore see the seeds of doubt within him; as if his title holds the respect and not the man. Before he even addresses them he sits and blows his nose with a comical raspberry noise – is he a clown already? His rule is obeyed though, as is demonstrated by his confiscating of the postcard – an act that will eventually lead to his downfall. For upon quizzing the ‘best student’, i.e. the most obedient and loyal, he discovers that many of the more rebellious students are frequenting the local burlesque bar, specifically to see the lead singer/dancer Lola Lola. With a grim determination to do something about it, the scene ends with Rath blowing on the post card himself – his regard to do something about the disobedient students being put aside for the allure of the girl. Although he does not yet know it he is teetering on the brink already.
The night time outdoor sets demonstrate categorically that German expressionism was alive and well into the 1930’s, look at the lighting design and the angles of the buildings as Rath makes his way along the streets to the Blue Angel club; all are delightfully stark and gorgeously detailed. We then cut to the club itself and more of that claustrophobic framing, the ‘anchor’ hangs in front of the camera, blocking certain view points, as we look towards the stage from the vantage point of one of the crowd – and on it is our first view of Lola, skimpily dressed and singing a seductive song as the onlookers bay and cat-call. Sternberg makes it clear that Lola is the star of the stage, she is positioned centrally with the backdrop of the stage, in this case a sun creating a halo effects around her (is she an angel?) and all the other girls are, shall we say, less attractive. This means that all eyes are drawn to her and specifically Dietrich, and she sizzles on the stage even in this early number and there is far better to come! The students are in the crowd, but upon seeing their professor scatter to avoid detection; all but one who is spotted and Rath gives chase to the back stage area – look for the prophetic moment when he opens the dressing room area door to frame a very dejected clown. In looking for his student, Rath inadvertently enters Lola’s bedroom, an act he has to apologise for when he meets her for the first time. Dietrich was certainly something special in this film, look at how she addresses Jannings, all fire and eyes, little wonder Marilyn Monroe emulated this behaviour for her screen persona. She struts around the screen, with barely anything on and then proceeds to undress for the camera, well for the next act, and in front of Rath, in what, for the time, must have been very daring and remains, even to this day, highly seductive. She teases him with her allure and her provocative speech, and while Rath tries to rebuff her advances with the weight of his authority and the fact he is there to reprimand the company for allowing minors into the premises; there is no denying he is already lost, he has no authority here and slowly, seductively he falls under Lola’s spell. It is from this point in the film that we get into the real meat as we follow Rath’s decision making that ultimately leads to his despair.
“When a man loves a woman
Down deep in his soul
She can bring him such misery
If she plays him for a fool
He's the last one to know
Lovin' eyes can't ever see”
Percy Sledge’s 1966 song encapsulates Rath’s plight as he loses everything he holds dear for the sake of the woman of his affections.
It is almost heart breaking to watch as Professor Rath loses control over his pupils, the fragile respect he held lost as they chide and deride him in class. His decision to stick with his heart over his job is, of course, laudable – anyone that has had to stomach the disapproval of others where matters of the heart are involved will fully understand and respect his choice; but in the cold light of day it is still a tough one. Watch for the scene where he resigns from his teaching job; the camera pulls back through the rows of desks with Rath, head down in defeat, in central frame. Moving the camera in early sound films was nearly impossible due to the noise of the cameras, but Germans were extremely inventive and this scene is mirrored much later and with deeper significance. One does have to look at Lola and her motivations. She is, what amounts to a modern day pole dancer, but loves her profession, is not looking for salvation or an escape. Thus her marrying a college professor is not one for prestige (he has after all resigned his chair), nor is it for money. In one of her many songs she calls for ‘a real man’, and indeed her first sight of him was during this number as Rath is singled out in a spotlight. Later he demonstrates his strong side, rebuffing the advances of a sailor who was being disrespectful to Lola and taking down his own students when he discovers them hiding in the basement – he displays the attributes of ‘a real man’ so perhaps she did have the love that so drives Rath, and maybe she fell for the respect that such a prominent man could have such affection for her. But rather than leave and join him; Rath elects to follow her on tour. He is still a proud man, refusing to sell the naughty postcards of his wife while he still has money in his pocket and steadfastly refusing to join in as part of the company, seeing it as beneath his dignity. However, time levels all playing fields, or in this case, erodes dignity and resolve until there is nothing left.
After five years on the road, Rath’s money has long gone, along with his self-respect and morals. He has taken to trying to sell the postcards he so vehemently wanted rid of, and calling the patrons of the establishments ignorant when they do not purchase. Lola chastises him for such behaviour for they are the paying public and without them they are nothing. He refuses to be spoken to in such a manner so Lola tells him to leave and he does so. Lola continues to peel her apple, goes about her dressing for the next act and waits silently. She won’t be alone long, Rath sulks back, he will not leave her, he can't. But he needs to pay his way and the company leader, a conjurer, needs an assistant; Rath will be that assistant, a clown called August. We are very close to his lowest ebb. It is announced that the troupe will be going back to the Blue Angel and that Rath will be able to perform in front of his home town; this is supposed to lift his spirits, it has the very opposite effect. Jannings has now become very introverted in his characterisation, there is barely any expression and he is hunched and bleak; this really hammers home the despair that his going through his character. Dietrich meanwhile is positively radiant, as if she is feeding off the despair, the camera longingly shooting her with exquisite lighting. Her radiance catches the attention of another performer, Mazeppa ‘the strong man’ (played by Hans Albers who would become a German megastar with streets named after him), and the two unashamedly flirt right in front of poor Rath, while he is being dressed for his ‘big performance’. This scene is another that is wonderfully framed, the mirror showcasing the duality aspect, the clutter of the desk metaphorically representing the mind, Rath and Mazzappa – the old and the new – and Lola, even when she is not directly on screen, is always seen in the mirror, she is always there. The troupe take turns to cajole and deride him in an effort to get him to take the stage, and in the end resort to dragging him on, where his total humiliation is complete. The conjurer pulls eggs from his nose and proceeds to break them on his head, while backstage Lola and Mazeppa kiss, her eyes never leaving Rath’s as he looks on. The images of Jannings as the clown on stage at this point are harrowing and may account for the ‘creepy’ feeling many people associate with them. Something in Rath snaps, his degradation is complete and he slips effortlessly into madness; he launches off stage and tries to strangle Lola, even Mazeppa cannot break his grip. Mercifully the camera pans away, as Mazeppa finds a strait jacket while Rath screams and screams and screams his agony. With Rath constrained Lola is free to begin the circle once more, and the lines have already been drawn.
The parting shot, after Rath is given his freedom, the dark mirror of the pull-back shot in the class room, has exactly the same set up, only this time Rath is in spotlight clinging to his desk refusing to let go as he lets his life slip away. Salvation at last.
The Blue Angel is quite a dark film. It’s subject matter, that of a man giving up everything he has for the sake of a woman only to fall from grace, lose his respect, dignity and be humiliated into insanity is hard to watch because the man himself has no actual faults before his downfall. This is not a bad character getting his comeuppance. This is an ordinary, respected fellow that happens to make poor choices and is punished unashamedly for it. Clearly the filleting of the source novel has brought about this turn, and von Sternberg has often been quoted as saying there is no allegory here, it is simply a cautionary tale in the vein of "the downfall of an enamoured man" and "a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low." With no clear motivation for either of the main characters, one is left with mixed feelings of sadness and despair, much like that of Rath himself. And the fact that scholars can debate about it this long after its creation is a testament to its greatness.
The film contains some startling imagery and every frame is thought out. Dietrich in stockings and top hat sitting astride a back turned chair was the clear inspiration for Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) in Caberet, and much of her sensual acting has been copied by many a screen siren ever since. Much of her persona is as much a creation of von Sternberg though, as it was through his direction, lighting and framing that she honed her skill, with much of the bedrock being laid in this film. He often took credit for ‘discovering’ her, whilst that isn’t strictly true he did bring out her best, although you could say the reverse is also true. But of all the images seen, for me, it is the one used above, that of Rath as the dejected and distraught clown – there is so much pathos delivered in these last few moments that you cannot help but want to shake him, help him, slap him, anything to bring back some semblance of life to those dead and tragic eyes.
Being one of the first European sound films it was actually recorded twice simultaneously, once in its native German language and this is the film that most are familiar with, and once in English, with the main actors speaking their own lines since dubbing technology was still very primitive. This was not unusual, indeed there are plenty of early Laurel and Hardy films with that comedy pair speaking Spanish. The English version is practically identical only running about three minutes shorter due to the odd cut and dialogue change to accommodate the language difference. It was long thought lost, but was discovered in a vault in Germany only a few years ago and has been restored and included on this set for posterity. Due to its very poor state on discovery the picture is understandably much worse than the existing German version – however both have merit as it is the actors delivering their own lines rather than being dubbed out. I go into this in much more detail in the picture and sound section because choosing between the two might not be as easy as you think! However, whichever version you choose, make sure you look at one, because the film is a timeless classic, and with so much happening in such a deceptively simple story, you will no doubt be as captivated by it as Rath is with Lola. Highly recommended.
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