The Blue Angel
Musical, Drama | 124 mins | Released: 1931
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron, Emil Jannings, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, Reinhold Bernt, Eduard von Winterstein
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is an esteemed educator at the local Gymnasium – a college preparatory high school – in Weimar Germany. He punishes several of his students for circulating photographs of the beautiful Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the headliner for the local cabaret, “The Blue Angel”. Hoping to catch the boys at the club, Rath goes there later that evening and meets Lola herself.
Consumed with desire for Lola, Rath returns to the night club the following evening, to return a pair of panties that were smuggled into his coat by one of his students, and stays the night with her. The next morning, reeling from his night of passion, Rath arrives late to school to find his classroom in chaos and the principal furious with his behavior.
Rath subsequently resigns from his position at the academy to marry Lola, but their happiness is short-lived, as they soon fritter away the teacher’s meager savings and Rath is forced to take a position as a clown in Lola’s cabaret troupe to pay the bills. His growing insecurities about Lola’s profession as a “shared woman” eventually consume him with lust and jealousy. The troupe returns to his hometown and The Blue Angel, where he is ridiculed and berated by the patrons, the very people he himself used to deride. As Rath performs his last act, he witnesses his wife embrace and kiss the strongman Mazeppa, her new love interest, and is enraged to the point of insanity. He attempts to strangle Lola, but is beaten down by the other members of the troupe and locked in a straitjacket.
Later that night, Rath is freed, and makes his way towards his old classroom. Rejected, humiliated, and destitute, he dies in remorse, clenching the desk at which he once taught.
The Blue Angel (German: Der blaue Engel) is a 1930 German tragicomedic film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich and Kurt Gerron. Written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann – with uncredited contributions by Sternberg. It is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat (“Professor Garbage”, 1905), and set in Weimar Germany. The Blue Angel presents the tragic transformation of a man from a respectable professor to a cabaret clown, and his descent into madness. The film is considered to be the first major German sound film, and brought Dietrich international fame. In addition, it introduced her signature song, Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Liebmann’s “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)”.
The film was shot simultaneously in German- and English-language versions, although the latter version was thought lost for many years.
Sternberg called the story “the downfall of an enamored man”, and he calls Rath “…a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low.” Some critics saw the film as an allegory for pre-war Germany, but Sternberg was very clear that he did not intend to make a political stand: “The year was 1929, Germany was undivided, although the real Germany, its schools and other places pictured in the film were not German and reality failed to interest me”.
Emil Jannings had asked Sternberg to direct him in his first sound picture, although Sternberg and Jannings had clashed on the set of their previous collaboration The Last Command (1928), and Sternberg had vowed never to work with the actor again. The following year, however, he and Jannings were reconciled, and at the invitation of Erich Pommer, head of UFA, they began to collaborate on a film about Rasputin. Sternberg was less than intrigued by this prospect, however, and as an alternative he suggested the idea of an adaptation of the Heinrich Mann story Professor Unrat, a 1905 satire about the hypocrisy of the German middle-class. Sternberg restructured the story to fit his tastes; simplifying moral themes and emphasizing the anguish of the teacher. As a result the second half of the book was not used at all, so that the film’s ending is entirely new.
Because the German and English versions of the film were shot simultaneously, the actors were required to play every scene twice. This was not unusual in the early sound film era, given the technical difficulties of dubbing and the desire of the studios to be able to sell their films in multiple international markets.
The Blue Angel is best known for introducing Marlene Dietrich to worldwide attention, although other performers were initially considered for the role, including Trude Hesterberg (a friend of Heinrich Mann), Brigitte Helm and Lucie Mannheim. Käthe Haack had already been signed to play the part before Sternberg met Dietrich and transferred the part to her. Dietrich’s portrayal of an uninhibited woman not only established her stardom, but also established a modern embodiment of a vixen. Lola-Lola’s lusty songs, written by Friedrich Hollaender (music) and Robert Liebmann (lyrics), slither their way into Rath’s heart, entrapping him and sealing his fate. The story’s melancholic simplicity adds to the beauty of Sternberg’s most remembered work, in both Germany and America. Dietrich’s radiant sensuality might be blamed for the censorship the film faced in Pasadena, California. C.V. Cowan, censor for Pasadena, found many scenes offensive and chose to cut them, though Jason Joy, the nation’s censor, did not. Reaction to the censor’s seal for the re-cut film was not good, and the theater removed the censorship statement.
During filming, although he was still the nominal star of the film, Jannings could see the growing closeness between Sternberg and Dietrich and the care the director took in presenting her, and the actor became jealous, threatening to strangle the actress and misbehaving on the set. The Blue Angel was to be his last great cinematic moment; it was also one of UFA’s last great films, as many of the studio’s major talents left Germany for Hollywood, including Sternberg and Dietrich, who were met on the dock in New York City by Sternberg’s wife, who served legal papers on Dietrich for “alienation of affection”. Sternberg and his wife were divorced shortly after.