Dietrich lights up the screen in von Sternberg’s first fliration with sound but not his last with obsession
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Emil Jannings (Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (Kiepert), Rosa Valetti (Gueste), Hans Alberts (Mazeppa), Reinhold Bernt (Clown), Eduard von Winterstein (School director), Rolf Muller (Angst), Roland Verno (Lohmann), Carl Balhaus (Ertzum)
Love and lust can be dangerous, all-consuming forces. Just ask Josef von Sternberg. It’s a rare film on his CV that isn’t about the self-destructive nature of longing. The Blue Angel is about obsession and its deadly consequences: but it’s also the birthplace of an obsession that would define von Sternberg’s own career. It’s the film where he discovered Dietrich. Did von Sternberg guess that, in time, he might himself become a version of the lovestruck Rath? I’d guess not, but the stench of sadomasochist excitement from complete prostration comes out of every frame of this classic.
Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a professor at the local gymnasium, preparing his students for university. Problem is, they are more interested in the goings-on at the seedy nightclub The Blue Angel than with Rath’s pompous lessons about Hamlet. Specifically, they are obsessed with Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the erotic head-line singer. Rath tries to catch his students in the act – and instead finds himself smitten by Lola, leaving his career to marry her. Five years later, and Rath has lost every ounce of self-respect, regularly debased by the cabaret company and reduced to doing humiliating chores for his wife.
The Blue Angel was one of the first major sound movies made in Germany. Jannings – winner of the first Best Actor Oscar – was the biggest star in Germany and handpicked von Sternberg, who had directed him to that Oscar in Hollywood’s The Last Command, to make the film. Plans to make a film about Rasputin were ditched in favour of an adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s story about a professor who becomes infatuated with a cabaret singer. It’s a tragic tale of a man bought low by an unsuitable woman: however, von Sternberg (with Mann’s agreement) rewrote the plot into a parade of humiliation for the professor. Rather than a tragic figure, he would be a pompous man turned into a submissive, emasculated figure of mockery.
Is this what Jannings had in mind? Surely not. Von Sternberg was critical of the actor, believing his overly-expressive movements and facial expressions – so perfect for silent cinema – looked crude and ridiculous with sound. Jannings certainly seems more comfortable throughout The Blue Angel with reactions than dialogue: but even then, his wide eyes, double-takes and shocked mouth often seem too much. In art imitating life, he feels like the self-important “actor” being taken down a peg, marginalised in the frame and (by the end) smeared in clown make-up with the yolk of raw eggs running down his face.
Jannings was certainly unhappy with the focus of the film shifting powerfully to Dietrich. He was the star, but it’s Dietrich you remember. And no wonder, since von Sternberg’s camera can hardly take its eyes off her. Dietrich’s cabaret performances – recorded live – were a sensation. Just as much was her brooding sensuality, with Dietrich’s rawness as a performer guided by von Sternberg into an unforced naturalism. Where Jannings is large, she is small. Where he double takes, she raises a single arched eyebrow. Where he blusters, she quietly sits and cocks her head. Von Sternberg’s camera frequently centralises her in the frame as if trying to unwrap the enigma of this intriguing woman.
Who is Lola? You can watch in detail and never be sure. At times she’s a coquettish tease. At others a contemptuous dominatrix. But then she is also playful, sensitive and (at first) seems to find the idea of possible security and fatherly protection from Rath desirable and alluring. Dietrich’s performance constantly keeps us on our toes. Does she at expect to be protected by Rath, but finds his increasing submissiveness arousing (does Rath find the same?). Or was she – as she hints in her cold and manipulative second rendition of Falling in Love Again – always a manipulator of men? (I like to think the other clown in Act One is some sort of former lover of Lola, the sad eyes he uses when staring at Rath seeming to say “don’t make my mistakes”.)
Sex is central to The Blue Angel. Von Sternberg’s camera constantly catches Lola’s legs in frame – in one striking shot on a spiral staircase directly above Rath’s head. Dietrich swaggers and dips, her hips moving, her legs curled sensually. She’s lit like a mix of an angel and a Caravaggio-esque temptress. She takes a sort of twisted pleasure in demeaning Rath – reduced to cooling her curling iron and rolling her stockings on so she can head out to “entertain” more men. But, just as telling, Rath keeps coming back for me. Sure, he might shout and rage – but then he’ll humbly take his place on his knees in front of her.
The Blue Angel is strikingly decadent. While Rath’s classroom has a hide-bound Victorianism – with himself as a puffed-up Thomas Arnold – the nightclub is seedy, crammed with loutish clientele swigging beer. Lola’s dressing room is rundown, the pay is poor and the glamour almost non-existent. This is the underbelly of Weimar Germany, already feeling the pinch. Rath is reduced to selling dirty postcards of his wife – his dishevelled frame hawking these around the punters after her performances – and allowing her to entertain “private admirers”.
Humiliation becomes the heart of this beautifully made film. Shot by von Sternberg with his signature artistic richness – the unnamed town feels like a Dickensian blow back more than Germany of the time – with beautiful halos of light and a frame that constantly fills itself with dynamic movement, The Blue Angel culminates in high tragedy laced with farce. Rath, forced into performing a humiliating clown routine in his hometown, watches as his wife watches him while clasping her new lover to her lips. Is she seeing how far she can push her pet in his humiliation? Will nothing make him stand up to her? Is this always what she wanted or just what she finds she likes?
Either way, you can see here the formation of fascinations that von Sternberg would only let go further in future films (think of The Scarlet Empress which reimagines Catherine the Great as the ultimate dominatrix). It humiliates Jannings both textually and meta-textually – making him look like a hammy relic, next to the sensual naturalness of Dietrich. But it’s also one of the great films about the erotic desire to be belittled. It was von Sternberg’s calling card and it cemented his desire to work with Dietrich again and again. Make of that what you will.
Note: The Blue Angel was of course made in the shadow of the rise of the Third Reich. Dietrich narrowly beat out Leni Riefenstahl for her role. Goebbels later banned the film for being “Jewish”. Of its three stars: Dietrich was a passionate anti-Nazi campaigner. Emil Jannings became the most famous actor to support the Nazis (which ended his career after the war). And, tragically, Kurt Gerron and his wife were murdered in Auschwitz.