The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE BLUE ANGEL (1930)

the blue angel review
An aging professor's life falls apart when he falls for a young nightclub singer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg

Starring: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers

the blue angel poster

"Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl..."

Has any society ever undergone such a startling about face as that of Germany in the early '30s, eschewing the liberal decadence of the Weimar era for Nazism? Though directed by an American, The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg's 1930 adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, provides some clues as to where that European nation was headed, documenting the rise of anti-intellectualism and the hardening of a country's heart.

On loan to German studio UFA from MGM, Von Sternberg brought with him to Germany that country's great star of the silent era, Emil Jannings, who had won the first ever Best Actor Oscar a year earlier for his roles in Von Sternberg's The Last Command and Victor Fleming's now lost film The Way of All Flesh. The advent of the talkies meant that Jannings, with his distinctive Teutonic accent, had found himself struggling for roles in Hollywood. Along with 1924's The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel would provide his most iconic roles, and both films see him play a proud but naive man whose social standing suffers a calamitous fall.

the blue angel review

In The Blue Angel, Jannings is Immanuel Rath, a professor at a college for boys, whose students constantly mock him with crude sketches left on blackboards and scribbled on books. One day Rath confiscates a postcard featuring a scantily clad young woman from a pupil. The woman in the picture is Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), a singer at The Blue Angel, a cellar club where Rath's students have been spending their evenings enjoying the show. Setting out to catch the boys, Rath heads to The Blue Angel, where he becomes enraptured by Lola, whom he has an affable encounter with backstage.

Smitten, Rath returns to the club night after night, even getting into a fight with a sailor who disrespects Lola. Seemingly considering him a catch, Lola suggests marriage. Rath quits his teaching position, the two are wed and hit the road on a seedy showbiz tour. Eager to please Lola, whose eyes are straying to a handsome strongman (Hans Albers) - who introduces himself with the immortal line "When I see a beautiful woman I pursue her. It's my trademark!" - Rath becomes a performer in a degrading act that sees him forced to cluck like a chicken while eggs are smashed over his head. Love makes you do funny things.

the blue angel review

Peter Bogdanovich claims that Von Sternberg once described his relationship with Dietrich as "I am Miss Dietrich. Miss Dietrich is me." Perhaps the most iconic of all male director/female star duos, the pair would make seven pictures together, in which Dietrich usually played similar temptresses. Titles like Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman hint at the relationship between the pair, Von Sternberg ultimately having his own heart broken by Dietrich, as though he were the doomed protagonist of his own melodrama. Dietrich had made several pictures in Germany before The Blue Angel, but she edited her life story to claim it was Von Sternberg who discovered her, and the two enjoyed a symbiotic relationship like few others in cinema. So much so that I've often struggled with Dietrich when she appears in films by other directors - it always feel like she's parodying the tailored figure Von Sternberg moulded her into. Or to quote John Cusack in High Fidelity, "it's like sleeping with Talia Shire in Rocky if you aren't Rocky."

It's here that the screen ideal of Dietrich emerges fully formed, the image of her in top hat, stockings and suspenders burned into the cinephile psyche. Billy Wilder would call back to her Lola in Witness to the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power's troubles begin when he discovers Dietrich performing in a bombed out cellar as GI's holler at her to "show some leg." I've often thought Tod Browning was heavily influenced by Von Sternberg's film for his controversial 1932 film Freaks, in which we similarly see a tragic male emasculated by a blonde who falls for a strongman, not to mention the shared horrific image of a chicken/human hybrid. And surely The Blue Angel is the precursor of Film Noir, a genre whose primary theme is that of men destroying themselves in trying to please a seductive woman?

the blue angel review

Unlike the vast majority of films noir however, The Blue Angel doesn't present its female lead as an evil seductress. Rather, Rath's downfall is of his own making, allowing himself to be emasculated in his desire to please his young bride rather than offering her the strength and confidence she seeks elsewhere in the figure of the amorous strongman. Jannings' Rath is truly one of the most pathetic protagonists in world cinema, a human doormat tread on by a succession of his intellectual and emotional inferiors, from his pupils to the cruel director of the stage show that finally breaks his spirit. Rath is a weak man in a society that will soon have no place for the weak.

In the movie's opening scene, Rath awakens in his modest flat to find his songbird has passed away during the night. Spotting the dead bird, his landlady cold-heartedly throws its feathered corpse into a furnace, shrugging off its passing with a chilling line - "Anyway, it stopped singing long ago." The landlady's coldness is suggestive of a Germany that's increasingly reducing life to its utilitarian value. Later, the Professor finds himself waking in Lola's apartment after a night of heavy drinking. He's woken by the sound of a songbird. Another repeated motif can be found in Rath's classroom. Early on, Von Sternberg's camera slowly tracks back from Rath's desk to reveal the bustling chaos of what should be a temple of learning. Later, when Rath is at his lowest, he returns at night, breaking into the classroom and slumping over his desk. Von Sternberg repeats the earlier camera move. The classroom is empty, but for Germany, the lesson is only beginning.

The Blue Angel is in UK/ROI cinemas May 31st.