To experience the original instance of any form of breakthrough, be it artistic or scientific, is always a moment of discovery, as if the freshness of its conception had never left it and the changes it brought were still there, unwrapping in real time as you experience it. Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the German tour de force that brought Marlene Dietrich to the American and international spotlight, is nothing short of a revelation; it is the cornerstone of the screen icon whose greatness is only hinted in some of her more popular efforts like Touch of Evil and Witness for the Prosecution, and whose uniqueness is stunning, and in its context much ahead of its time. Like many films from the late 1920s and early 1930s, The Blue Angel is a glimpse into the technical excellence and thematic irreverence that sunk in between the turmoil of the advent of sound and the Production Code, and a historical one at that for several reasons.
In a manner of many “textbook films,” as one could call them, The Blue Angel finds itself in a transitional period that left many things behind and did not go very smoothly; it is a surprise that Sternberg’s film, his second talkie and the first in German film history, feels so sure of itself against the very awkward nature of the period. The collaboration with Emil Jannings almost did not happen, and many actresses, including Metropolis’ Brigitte Helm, were thought of before Dietrich. Because it is a strange hybrid of the idealistic romanticism and expressionism of the silent era and the sordid realism searched by directors with the emergence of dialogue, many critics and viewers tend to treat is as simply a historical product, for the revelation of its star and the way it pushed the boundaries of sexuality in film. But it is exactly in its hybrid form and its quiet subversion of previous modes of filmmaking that it excels as a jewel of Weimar cinema.
The film, based on a novel by Heinrich Mann, is a classic story of a man who falls in love with a woman and is ultimately destroyed by the relationship. The man (Jannings) is a gymnasium professor, an archetypal figure of authority, respect and class set against his increasingly devilish students, who prank each other and share pictures of semi naked ladies. These pictures include those of the woman, Lola Lola (Dietrich), nightclub singer at The Blue Angel and uncompromising heartbreaker, whom the same students visit every night for her seductive performances of song and dance. When the professor decides to catch his students on the act, he finds himself in Lola’s room and is lost forever as all men in such movies must be. The combination of different social classes, different lifestyles and different goals altogether proves destructive, and as he loses himself into her world he is once again lost out of her life and finally of his own. Though the relationship might come off as unlikely to some and abrupt to others, the contrast produces good chemistry, and the professor’s demise is poignant in its thematic meaning.
On a technical level, the film manages to display a consistent tone that is filled with features of its period merged into one single story; as previously mentioned, it is an entirely different product that not only distances itself from the troubled transition it is part of, but also addresses it appropriately. Ironically, the casting choices proved to be exemplary of the problem at hand: Emil Jannings, one of the finest and most iconic silent actors, would have in The Blue Angel his last grandiose moment, while for Dietrich it is the first of six collaborations with Josef von Sternberg that launched her into superstardom. The film as a whole is a clash of two cinematic eras: Jannings’s acting is one of amplified gestures and archetypal face gestures; Dietrich commands every scene she’s in with puzzling stares and naturalistic movements. On a visual level, the film blends the harsh shadows and claustrophobic spaces of German Expressionists – the sets look like something straight out of Nosferatu, and one particular scene seems to be a direct tribute to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – with the subtler lighting and life-like production design of the realists. And most impressively, the film shows Sternberg’s remarkable control of sound, exploring difference in volume between sound sources and spaces adjacent to them – doors play a big role in the film’s soundscape – and the power of minimalist design: sounds the whistling of a bird, the cheers of a distant crowd and ominous footsteps come out as alive as most of the film’s images. Here Sternberg quietly incorporates the marvels of older times while welcoming new ones, setting the ground for both poetic realists and proto-noir.
But the thematic layers in The Blue Angel are perhaps even more important: this is no ordinary romance film, and Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola is no ordinary woman. Professor Rath, though a man of immaculate credentials and steady habits, is not a family man or one of great wealth, and is surprisingly single. When he comes to the nightclub and meets Lola for the first time, the encounter inverts the power balance he is used to in the classroom, and this moment is of almost oedipal proportions: awfully clumsy, stuttering and constantly intimidated, he looks even more inexperienced than the teenagers he is trying to sermonize. As a single middle-aged man, he acts as if sexually frustrated and in desperately need of release, and therefore willing to lose the very little he has. His reputation tainted, his old life lost and his senses destroyed beyond reproach, he succumbs to Lola’s demands and idiosyncrasies until he collapses: what starts as a relationship of small compromises and relative comfort grows oppressive then near masochistic - though Sternberg seems to have cut on that part of it - before it ultimately reaches a dead end.
But in a very modern twist, the fault does not fall entirely on the woman, who is usually the sole perpetrator in this kind of narrative. Lola is somewhere in between the vamps of the 1910's and the femme fatales of film noir, but her agency is much more humanized. She unashamedly sings about dangerous blonde women and falling in love again, as if to warn her spectators, and acts accordingly, perhaps a bit selfish but nevertheless liberated and honest. When she is seen backstage, at her “natural habitat,” her actions and her exhaling sexuality are given a naturalistic treatment, removing the impression of vile temptation one would expect from the film’s setting. Whether out of Sternberg’s love of his muse or his deliberately liberal framing of the subject matter, Dietrich’s Lola is free to be herself and to be taken for what she is, in an interesting form of proto-feminist that early sound cinema was particularly fond of; she ceases to be an object of desire to become subject.
The result is a narrative that is simply about the destructive nature of love, refraining from exaggerated judgments though especially interested in showing the outcome of a clash of cultures - in fact, most of the moralizing in the film seems to fall under the professor, who loses his job and is ultimately humiliated in from of his fellow town folks. Love hurts a bit more than the usual in Sternberg’s melodrama, but in the end that’s part of the game, and the show must go on.