The 1929 film, the first major German “talkie,” was directed by acclaimed German director Josef von Sternberg, who took a chance on the young actress and essentially made her (or perhaps more correctly, gave her the opportunity to become) a major international star. Sternberg later claimed that he had “discovered” Dietrich. They also became romantically involved and eventually made six films together.
“The Blue Angel” was actually supposed to be a star vehicle for German actor Emil Jannings, who was a silent film star and won the first Academy Award for Best Actor for two films, the Sternberg-directed “The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh.”
But it was Dietrich’s magnetic personality and overt sensuousness and sexuality that took over the film and made her a star. Jannings’ career actually took a nosedive after that, particularly since his heavy German accent didn’t translate well to sound motion pictures and his later embrace of the Nazis made him a pariah in Hollywood.
It didn’t help that in “The Blue Angel,” his character, Professor Immanuel Rath, at first a steadfast and self-righteous teacher and keeper of morals, especially those of his students, becomes a downtrodden, obsessed, jealous and humiliated shell of a man due to his love and obsession for Dietrich’s seductive and wanton cabaret performer Lola Lola.
His Prof. Rath goes from being a respected and admired academician to basically a roundly scorned and humiliated clown working in a cabaret, The Blue Angel of the title. Sternberg described the story as “the downfall of an enamored man,” calling the professor “a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low.”
Lola, despite or perhaps because of, her almost callous indifference to him, takes a shine to the chivalrous educator, who doesn’t seem to care that she’s a lowly cabaret performer with loose morals and a seeming disdain for men who lust for her nightly. He’s besotted, which, of course, will lead to his eventual sad demise.
Dietrich is said to have been the prototype for the sleek and deadly “femme fatale” (fatal women) that became popular in the film noir genre of the 30s and 40s. While later femme fatales used their wiles and sexuality for nefarious ends, such as gaining money or favors, Dietrich’s Lola is not out for money or property, in fact, she doesn’t seem to have an endgame other than to string the hapless professor along and use and abuse him. Against all rationality, they actually get married, which doesn’t exactly go the way the good professor had imagined.
The late renowned film critic Roger Ebert, perhaps like many viewers of the film, found this puzzling.
“There are times when she seems fond of him, times when she is indifferent, times when she is unfaithful, and yet she has a certain stubborn affection for this pathetic figure,” he writes in his 2001 review of the English language version. “Perhaps he acts as a front for her shadow life of discreet prostitution; perhaps, in a world that regards her as a tramp, she values the one man who idealizes her.”
Matthew, a blogger with classicartfilms.com, came to the same conclusion, that “she probably was fond of him and had some form of sweet affection towards him. I also believe it was because he was one of the few men in her life who regarded her less as a tramp or a prostitute and more as a human being. There are times in which she seems to care for the professor’s feelings and then the next minute she can coldly be indifferent to them by being openly unfaithful.”
He also says that the song that Lola sings at the end of the film, “sums up her character perfectly and how she embodies the perfect all-dominant female sexual creature; a dangerous woman who can naturally move from one male victim to another, always feeling completely indifferent about it.”
The song is “Falling in Love Again,” which is used in the finale of the American version of the film because it wasn’t as dark as the German language version, which has the professor, destitute and filled with remorse, dying at the desk he used to teach from at his former school.
In it, Dietrich sings, “I can’t help it … Men swarm around me like moths round a flame … And if their wings are singed, surely I can’t be blamed …Falling in love again …Never wanted to … What’s a girl to do?”
What’s a girl like Lola to do, indeed?
Watch The Blue Angel on MovieZoot.com here.