Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930), was not his first sound film (Thunderbolt was, in 1929), but it was the first German sound film. Though shot prior to the filming of Morocco (1930), The Blue Angel was released in the United States just afterwards. Unlike some of the awkward early efforts in using the new cumbersome sound technology, The Blue Angel still stands today as one of the stellar expressions in film history. The story charts the tragic downfall of an older German professor as a result of his ruinous infatuation with a lower class cabaret singer. The novel on which the script is based, Professor Unrat, by Heinrich Mann, was said to be a pointed attack on the hypocrisy of German society and politics in the pre-World War I period. But von Sternberg altered this story to focus on one of his signal themes: the fatal, all-consuming power of romantic love. In the story, Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) is a professor, a respected man of high stature in his local German city, and his position commands respect from his peers and fear from his pupils -- for him, it defines who he is. When he falls for Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the cabaret singer/dancer, he forsakes his position in society and enters into a free-fall plunge that can only end in his own destruction. The narrative can be partitioned into four thematic acts, although the boundaries are not sharply defined:
- Introduction (30 minutes). Professor Rath is shown to be a rather pompous and self-regimented characters who teaches at the local gymnasium (note that the final-year gymnasium students would correspond to first-year college students today). While having his breakfast in his quarters, he is somewhat disturbed to see that his pet canary has died, and this perhaps is an unwanted reminder of our own inevitable vulnerability to natural forces. This will later be contrasted by the observation of the singing caged canary in Lola-Lola's room. Later in the professor’s classroom, he catches some of his more impudent students passing around photos of the singer, Lola-Lola, who is performing at the local cabaret, The Blue Angel. He decides to visit this venue and see if he can put a stop to his students' frequenting this den of corruption. But while trying to collar some students he has spied at the cabaret, he stumbles into Lola-Lola’s dressing room, where he finds himself put off balance by the beautiful and confidently unaffected singer. He is nonetheless indignant with the sinful surroundings and angrily storms out to his own abode.
- Seduction (39 minutes). The next day the professor returns to the cabaret in order to recover his forgotten hat and to return Lola-Lola’s undergarment that had been secreted into his pocket during that first visit by his cheeky student. On this occasion he is charmed by Lola’s earthy openness and manner, in which she treats him not as a pillar of society, but as a man and as an equal. Soon she is being quite flirtatious, and the professor ultimately spends the night with her. For Lola, this is probably a common occurrence, but for the professor, it has changed his world. He tardily rushes back to his morning class, but the word is out about the professor’s nocturnal escapade, and his unruly and abusive students call him “Unrat”, meaning “rubbish”. He loses his position, but now blindly in love, he offers his hand to Lola-Lola in marriage. Perhaps seizing an unexpected opportunity for respectability, Lola accepts his proposal.
- The decline (7 minutes). With Rath now unemployed, Lola must continue to work as a singer, and Rath accompanies her as she travels with her performing company to other locales. Very rapidly we see that his role has been reduced to that of a servant, and all the formerly received respect has disappeared. But after five years of degeneration and denigration on the road, he is alarmed to learn that a further indignity awaits: the troupe is scheduled to revisit the Blue Angel, where his presence on stage as a clown is expected to attract a packed house of mocking former students and colleagues.
- The final debasement (26 minutes). Back in the old town at the Blue Angel, Rath is subjected to utter humiliation in front of the crowd, while he is cuckolded off stage by his wife, who is now attracted to a performing “strong man” that she has just met. Rath ultimately goes berserk and finally makes his way back to his old desk at the gymnasium, where he slumps forward and dies.
Here is some earlier commentary of mine that provides additional background on this subject:
Josef von Sternberg, one of the few internationally admired American directors, achieved his greatest success with his one German film. Sternberg emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1908, and after a decade of apprenticeship in the film industry during which the “von” was added to his name by an image-minded producer, he gained wide critical acclaim with his first directorial effort, The Salvation Hunters (1925). Thereafter came a string of silent screen successes, including The Last Command (1928), starring Emil Jannings, who, like many of countrymen, had been imported by Hollywood after the international box office smashes of films like The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann, 1924) and Variety (1925). The sound film was often an artistic stumbling block for established silent directors, but Von Sternberg’s first effort with sound, Thunderbolt (1929), was a convincing realization of the medium.There are some wonderful features to this film that deserve further mention:
Meanwhile, Jannings, unable to master English, had returned to Germany, and, at his request, von Sternberg was sent for to assist the star in his transition to sound films, despite personality differences between the two during the filming of The Last Command. They decided to make a film based on the novel Professor Unrat, a violent attack on Imperial Germany, written in 1905 by Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann). Von Sternberg was to make vast alterations translating the novel, which had been an old abandoned project of G. W. Pabst, to the screen, including the elimination of the last third of the novel. Later when there was public criticism for those changes (in Germany) and when, for complex political reason, Ufa tried to dissociate its film from the radical leftist, Mann, the author replied simply, “Had I been more mature (when I wrote it), I would have developed the character of Professor Unrath more humanly, as in the film.”
There was disagreement in the production company as to the female lead opposite Jannings. Legend has it that Von Sternberg finally chose the obscure musical comedy actress, Marlene Dietrich, after hearing her utter her one and only lin in a show: “Hurray for the gentleman who has won the Grand Prize.”
The result of all this was The Blue Angel, which was released in German and English language versions and which ranks with the greatest films of all time. The film marked a transition for von Sternberg from his earlier harsh realism to his subsequent Baudelairian obsession with feminine ambiguity and erotic visual imagery. What causes this film to transcend the trivial genre of bourgeois male corrupted by bohemian female is the subtly conceived role of Lola-Lola.. The directness of Dietrich, contrasting well with the elaborateness of Jannings, established the ground for her magnetic appeal. Her impassive, even sometimes sympathetic, innocence renders the fate of the Professor into true tragedy.
Critical comment on the film is frequently divided between its so-called dream-like nature and its sordid realism. What is actually achieved is a brilliant synthesis of expressionism and artistic detail to bring about a realism of the imagination of memory. The expressive power arising from von Sternberg’s control of the cinematic environment to its last detail results in effects even more strongly felt than those of Pabst. Siegfried Kracauer, commenting on The Blue Angel, observed that von Sternberg was the “master of the art of rendering milieus.” As in Carl Mayer’s postwar films, the persistent interference of mute objects reveals the whole milieu (of The Blue Angel) as a scene of loosened instincts.
Von Sternberg, with The Blue Angel, had elevated Expressionism to the sound film and opened up new possibilities for its presentation. However, only von Sternberg, and later Orson Welles, had the technical virtuosity and artistic integrity to continue the Expressionist tradition successfully.
- Both Jannings and Dietrich give superb performances. Jannings’s highly gestural presentation, derived from his silent movie experience, leads effectively to the dramatic gestures of the clown in the final scenes. Dietrich’s performance, by contrast, is a brilliantly natural presentation of the reflexively amoral and passionate aesthete. He embodies the neuroses of civilisation; she represents the innocence of the pagan. There is nothing cruel about Lola-Lola, but she can’t help being who she is and she embodies her own signature song: “Falling in Love Again”. This first sound-film performance of Dietrich was never surpassed for its mixture of uncompromising and unfathomable femininity. Overall, the dialogue and character attitudes are, despite the expressionistic tones in the film, very natural – they reflect an openness in the filmmaking of those days that would soon be curtailed by the Hays Code.
- The strong man who seduces Lola-Lola at the end is an example of the mindlessly arrogant and rudely masculine lothario who would frequent many of von Sternberg’s later pictures. This person was always the animalistic counterweight to the romantic dreams implicit in von Sternberg’s aesthetic.
- The expressionistic, shadow-laden environments are beautifully atmospheric, especially the decadent atmosphere of the cabaret stage and dressing rooms. These are meticulously crafted frames that achieve visual depth by shooting highlighted and backlit subjects through shadowy foreground scenery. The expressionist visuals are so dramatically well presented that the film can be pretty well understood without any semantic input from the sound track. In fact it may be better to watch the film without subtitles enabled.
- Von Sternberg employs some stunning narrative "glissandos" as the plot moves along quickly. One example is the scene in which Rath asserts that he will not allow pictures of Lola-Lola to be sold, which slides smoothly into the next one in which Rath is, himself, hawking the same photos to her spectators.