Movie Review: The Blue Angel (1930)
The Blue Angel (1930)
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron
Synopsis: A respected professor’s life falls apart when he becomes involved with a showgirl.
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As hedonistic as the culture that permitted the Nazis’ rise to power might have been, The Blue Angel shows that at least a section of German society was conscious of the potential downfall that awaited a complacent middle-class seemingly impervious to the shifts within the country’s social structure and political ideology. Josef von Sternberg dispensed with much of the plot from Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat to fashion a nightmarish cautionary tale of one man’s descent into hell that, in hindsight, seems remarkably prescient as an allegory relating to the collective madness that consumed the German people under the force of Hitler’s rhetoric.
The Blue Angel charts the destruction of a pompous middle-aged Professor (Emil Jannings – Anna Boleyn, Faust) when his safe provincial life is rudely upended by an unlikely relationship with the nightclub singer, Lola-Lola, played by a spirited Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress, Witness for the Prosecution) immediately before the Hollywood Glamour Machine got its hands on her. The way that von Sternberg foreshadows the fate of Professor Immanuel Rath in the film’s early scenes suggests his fate is preordained and inescapable. In the opening scene he appears for breakfast in his modest apartment to discover that his pet bird has died in the night; his path to Lola, motivated by his desire to catch his students at the tawdry nightclub in which she sings, is an expressionist tableau of menacingly tilting buildings lining uneven cobbled streets; in the club, the clumsy professor briefly becomes entangled in a decorative fish net, and, most telling of all, a glum and seedy clown haunts the club scenes, largely unnoticed or ignored by its staff and patrons.
The club is a cramped and disorderly confusion of noise. From behind a fake seagull hanging from a string, Lola sings Falling in Love Again, sitting with her legs apart and hands on her knees in bawdy invitation, and Rath’s righteous wrath evaporates when confronted by her earthy sexuality. Von Sternberg teases Rath and the audience with overtly sexual glimpses of Dietrich’s body: “Careful, Parson,” she coos to the befuddled professor from the top of a spiral staircase, “I’m dropping my pants.” He visits the club on a second occasion after waking in the night to find he was wiping his brow with those very pants, which were covertly placed in his jacket pocket by one of his miscreant pupils. Of course, Rath didn’t need to return them in person, but he’s already in her thrall, even if neither of them yet realise it.
It’s Dietrich’s movie, even though Jannings was the established star at the time. A major player in silent cinema, the heavily accented German’s recent crack at Hollywood had been scuppered by the growing popularity of talking pictures. Ironically, The Blue Angel would propel Dietrich to international stardom – it was filmed in both German and English – and see her heading to Hollywood with her lover and mentor, von Sternberg. Jannings was apparently enraged by the attention the director lavished on his female lead, and the scene in which he attempts to throttle Lola was apparently a little too realistic for comfort. His years as a silent star might have coloured Jannings’ performance to a degree, but he’s nothing short of devastating in the movie’s harrowing final scenes in which the Professor’s humiliation finally leads to madness.
There’s something chilling about the scenes shared by Jannings, who would become an active supporter of the Nazis, and rotund Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, who plays the nightclub’s resident magician. Gerron would flee to Amsterdam in 1933, following the rise of the Nazis. In 1943 he was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp where, the following year, he was forced to direct a staged documentary designed to dispel reports that Jews were being ill-treated in concentration camps. After completing the film, Gerron was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed on 28th October 1944.
(Reviewed 29th November 2016)