Blue Angel, The (1930): Von Sternberg’s Seminal Film Starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich

Simultaneously shot in German and English, “The Blue Angel” is mostly remembered today as the film that instantly catapulted Marlene Dietrich to international stardom.

Producer-director Pommer asked the native German Joseph von Sternberg to direct “The Blue Angel” based on his successful American movies, “Underworld” and the Oscar-nominated “The Last Command.”

Made in the same year as Fritz Lang’s seminal “M,” “Blue Angel” summed up the German expressionistic style of the 1920s, an important zeitgeist picture that reflected the psychological and sociological situation of the time, or the collective conscience.

Based upon Heinrich Manns pre-War socially-minded and famous novel, Professor Unrath, the movie deals with the breakdown of authoritarian personality.  It has been interpreted by social historian Kracauer as a work that depicted all the vices of German bourgeois society, based on his debatable assumption that every nation depends upon critical introspection as a means of self-preservation.

In a role that would stamp his entire career, Emil Jannings plays the bearded high school professor in a small seaport town. A sexually repressed, middle-aged bachelor, he antagonizes his students, who immediately recognize and manipulate the inhibitions behind his petty-tyrannical manner.

Note the professor’s ritualistic behavior in the classroom in the first scene, after a student writes on his notebook. The professor blows his nose before beginning to discuss Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be,” from Hamlet. Again blowing his nose, he follows with cleaning his thick glasses

For fun, his pupils frequent Lola Lola, the star of a small troupe of artists performing in the tavern, The Blue Angel. Driven by moral indignation and ill-concealed sexual jealousy, he decides settle accounts with that siren

But upon encountering the siren, he succumbs to Lola’s charms and soon after proposes to her, which forces him to leave school. In his wedding party, the euphoric professor is not above making a wonderful imitation of cock-crowing, to the delight of his guests.  Ironically, what appears to be the high point of his career as a free man also signals the beginning of his downfall and demise.

The company travels from town to town, with the professor producing his cock-crowing on stage. Humiliation reaches a climax when they return to The Blue Angel. Hoping to stir a sensation in him, the whole town rushes in to see his performance. Unable to stand the hurt and humiliation, he turns into a raging madman. He rushes off-stage and begins to strangle Lola. Then, like a mortally wounded animal, he sneaks back into the old school and his classroom where he collapses and dies.

Jannings plays the inhibited, tyrannical high-school professor who is prudishly indignant about his students visiting Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the sexy singer at the Blue Angel nightclub. He goes to the club to put a stop to it and instead succumbs to her callous sexuality. The pedant man becomes Lola’s husband, her slave–and her stooge.

 

Visually, the film repeats a crucial shot that gets different meaning in the course of the narrative. When he first leaves school for good, the professor sits alone and lonely at his desk, and a traveling shot encompasses the empty class. The very same shot re-emerges at the end, when the professor dies at his old desk.

The UFA film is set in a dark nightmarish world, which could only be created on the studio’s sound stages artificially. The narrow, claustrophobic interiors bear powers of expression, mingling of architectural fragments, human characters, and nondescript objects, such as a maze of fishing nets.

The room cluttered with objects; there’s even a dead parrot in a cage. Lola sings on a miniature stage, overstuffed with props; at times, she herself is dwarfed by the setting and seems to be part of the dcor

At the time, “The Blue Angel” scored international success, due to the sensational appearance of Marlene Dietrich, who became known for her shapely legs. In this film, she embodies a petty bourgeois tart, at once amoral and immoral, projecting cool egoism and cool insolence.

A recurring visual motif in the film is the old church-clock, which chimes a popular German tune devoted to the praise of loyalty and honesty, a tune expressive of the professor’s inherited beliefs. At the end, after Lola’s song has faded away, this tune is heard for the last time as the camera shows him dead. Lola has killed him, and her song defeats the chimes. Thus, Lola destroys not only the professor but also the entire social and physical middle-class world he represents.

At first, the professor rebels against society’s rigid conventions by exchanging his school (Education) for the club, The Blue Angel (Cheap Entertainment). But like other protagonists in German films of the era, the would-be-rebel-professor quickly submits again, not to the old middle-class standards but to worse powers from those from which he had escaped

It’s noteworthy, that increasingly, the professor is the victim of the troupe’s manager rather than of Lola. With love gone, it becomes a power play of master and slave, submission and surrender from one authoritative structure to another.

Kracauer and others have pointed out the retrogression that marks the professor’s devolution of character. Instead of becoming adult and more mature, he goes through a process of retrogression that reduces him back to childhood, submission, and dependency. Behaving like a child, the professor is seen playing with dolls, which implies loss of masculinity as well as maturity.

How symbolic is the picture Does it pose prophetically the question of German immaturity after the defeat of WWI Are the sadism and cruelty results of the immaturity of the professor (and others like him) These are all intriguing questions that the film urges us to consider.

For Kracauer, “Blue Angel” is a cautionary tale, as he notes, “It is as if the film implied a warning, for these screen figures anticipate what will happen in real life a few years later. According to his reading the boys may be standing in for Hitler’s youths, and the cock-crowing device bears resemblance to contrivances used by the Nazis in their concentration camps.

Two characters in the film, both mute and silent, stand off from the events
First, there’s the clown of the artists company, a mute figure who observes his colleagues with alertness. Then there’s the school beadle, whos present at the professors death, but like the clown, he doesnt talk, either. These two men function as passive witnesses but not active participants, since they
refrain from interference. Again, for Kracauer, their silent resignation foreshadows the passivity of people under totalitarianism

There’s also been a debate over the over the acting style, is it Expressionistic or Naturalistic Its director, von Sternberg, denied it was deliberately expressionistic.

My repeat viewing suggests more of a juxtaposition of styles: The acting of Marlene Dietrich is naturalistic, while that of Jannings is decidedly expressionistic, perhaps also a function of his background and beginning in the silent era.

Similar juxtaposition describes the settings. If the classroom and dressing room sets are quasi-naturalistic, the outdoor and street sets are definitely expressionistic, distorting any realistic proportion or ratio of humans to physical objects.

On one level, “The Blue Angel” is a study of sado-masochistic relationship, with the femme dominating the relationship. The film is way ahead of its time in portraying outright and outrageous sadism that turns the professor’s torture and humiliation into a spectacle of mass proportions, for his students, for the public of the club, and for us viewers while watching the film.

On another level, the film is effective as a study of amour fou, literally of love turned to madness. How else to interpret an elderly schoolmaster who falls so passionately and madly in love with a cabaret singer that he leaves his profession and marries her. Lola exploits the professor, turning him into a clown and a slave. He goes mad with jealousy when Lola courts younger men. He attempts to strangle her, then, cast out as insane, he returns secretly to his old school and dies at his desk in the empty classroom.

German director Josef von Sternberg has been working in Hollywood for more than 15 years when he went back Germany, at actor Emil Jannings’ request, to direct his first “talkie.” Von Sternberg had directed Jannings in The Last Command, one of the two American silent films that had won Jannings an Oscar Award in 1928.

Dietrich’s Lola is a rather coarse, plump character; as she sings “Falling in Love Again,” her smoldering voice and sadistic indifference suggest sex without romance, love, or sentiment.

In a career-making performance that made her an international star, Dietrich is extraordinary. Von Sternberg, who was romantically involved with his actress, set in motion the Dietrich myth that was eventually to surpass his own fame as a filmmaker. (The two collaborated on a number of films).

Directed in an expressionistic mode, The Blue Angel has been admired for generations for its imaginative, atmospheric style. The psychosexual humiliation gets very heavy in the scenes in which the professor, now a clown, returns to his hometown and to his old classroom.

In 1959, a less successful remake, directed by Edward Dmytryk, starred Curt Jurgens and May Britt.