Thursday, May 28, 2009

1930: Der blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)

Released: April 1, 1930 (Germany)

a.k.a: The Blue Angel

Director: Josef von Sternberg; Screenplay: Heinrich Mann (based on his own novel), Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, Robert Liebmann, Josef von Sternberg; Cinematography: Günther Rittau; Studio: UFA; Producer: Erich Pommer

Cast: Emil Jannings (Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (Kiepert), Rosa Valetti (Guste), Hans Albers (Mazeppa)

Time to get the ball rolling on the countdown... so, we begin in 1930.

- "I don't get it... an educated man like you, all for some dame."

There are certain films that I think very highly of but rarely watch. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be the case, but the most likely explanation is that some films are just so draining that it can be challenging to repeatedly subject myself to it. The Blue Angel is the epitome of such a film. This story of a man who voluntarily abandons a successful way of life after one memorable night with a seductive woman is unnerving. Yet, the power of the two lead performances is so strong that it was impossible for me not to be captivated by this man’s descent into a nightmarish existence. The fact that the film is disturbing and at times unpleasant to watch only reinforces how effective it is.

The story centers upon Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a middle-aged college professor who lives a highly structured life. Each day follows a similar routine, involving his housekeeper waking him for breakfast, eating alone, and then to the school to instruct his teenage students. When he finds a group of his students gawking at postcards of a scantily clad woman, he discovers that the pictures are of a woman who sings at a local club called The Blue Angel. After he finds out that the students have been sneaking into the club late at night, he sets out for The Blue Angel determined to catch them in the act.

While there, Rath meets the woman of the postcard, singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). After a tense first meeting, Rath returns to the club the following night. He is enchanted with this beautiful woman. After running off a customer making unwelcome advances toward Lola, Rath is seen by her in a new light. Warming up to this stiff academic, Lola suddenly begins to shower him with attention. He spends the rest of the evening with her, drinking and watching her perform, and ends up staying overnight. By the next morning, when he returns to school, Rath has made up his mind that he is going to marry Lola. He tells the director of the school as much and then proceeds to go back to The Blue Angel and propose. Now married to a risqué lounge singer, his career as a teacher is over and he goes on the road with the traveling troupe that Lola is a member of.

It is while on the road that Rath begins to lose control. Quickly spending all of the money he had saved, Rath is forced to begin peddling postcards of his wife in order to supplement Lola’s earnings as a singer. When not even this is enough to live comfortably, Rath further denigrates himself by becoming a clown that assists the troupe’s director and magician with his act. He is completely rundown, and judging by the emotions that Jannings is able to convey simply through facial expressions, he feels ridiculous. Rath openly and vocally despises what he has become, but seems to be clueless to any alternatives. Additionally, whatever love once existed between him and Lola appears to have completely dissolved. When the group makes a return trip to his hometown for a performance at The Blue Angel, Rath reaches a breaking point. The humiliation of performing in front of his former colleagues and students drives him over the edge.

My experience with the films of Joseph von Sternberg is limited and this 1930 German release was my introduction to his work. As a director that would ultimately come to be viewed as a key influence upon the later era of film noir, I came in fully expecting a film that was bleak in outlook. As can probably be interpreted from the introduction to this piece, the film more than fulfilled that expectation. What I did not anticipate is how adept von Sternberg would be in altering the tone in mid-film. This is not a movie that is melancholy the entire way through. For half of the film, von Sternberg is able to create a very enjoyable light comedy. The cat-and-mouse game played between Rath and his students is funny, with the workers at The Blue Angel realizing what is happening and contributing to the professor’s challenge. The workers understand how uncomfortable Rath initially is when he comes to the club, and they play on this nervousness. Lola embarrasses him by doing things like undressing just out of sight and dropping her underwear down onto his shoulder. While they are somewhat mocking of the professor, these antics come across as funny and very innocent.

But when von Sternberg does change the tone of the film, it is a complete reversal. From the point that Rath begins working as an entertainer for the troupe until the end, there is nothing good-natured in the entire film. The atmosphere becomes very gloomy and it is here that Emil Jannings truly begins to shine. He is excellent as the bumbling professor, running around trying to catch his students at the club. But as a man struggling to maintain his dignity, he is even better. Jannings was already a very accomplished actor prior to this film. In fact, he had won the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928 on the strength of two roles he played that year (in von Sternberg’s The Last Command and Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh). His reputation was built on his work in silent films, but with the arrival of the talkies, he left Hollywood and returned to his native Europe. In The Blue Angel, this silent film background is fitting. With very little dialog, Jannings is able to convey the shame that Rath feels toward what he has become. Watching his facial expressions as he begins to apply the makeup for his clown costume, the sense of embarrassment is quite clear. While not completely silent, the final freakout by Rath when the troupe returns to The Blue Angel is as disturbing as anything from a horror movie. His guttural screams as he attacks Lola demonstrate that he has completely lost his grip on his sanity.

While Jannings’ performance is the most powerful, the most significant impact of this film was the introduction of Marlene Dietrich. This was her breakthrough and brought her international fame. The strength of Dietrich in this film is the ability to project a very sexy and alluring image. Lola is a manipulative woman, someone that relies on sex appeal to achieve her own designs. Dietrich, with her stunning beauty and assertive attitude in the role, plays the character as it needs to be done. At the time of release, the consensus opinion was that Dietrich had stolen the show from Jannings.

In the midst of this praise, I have to acknowledge that this is far from a perfect film. There are scenes that seem entirely superfluous and that would not have been missed had they been completely cut – for example, a scene with the entire troupe around a dinner table celebrating the wedding of Lola and Rath. Some would argue that the entire relationship between the two is outlandish in the way that Rath becomes completely enamored after just one night. The pace of the story is wandering, just flowing from one point to the next without many real ups or downs until the whirlwind finish. While it worked for me, there were times where even I grew concerned that it was about to seriously drag.

There are even deeper interpretations of the film that many critics have put forth, but I’m far from qualified to comment on whether this truly was a parable for the decline of Germany in the period between the two world wars. Von Sternberg is on record declaring that he didn’t intentionally include such a message. What I do know is that he crafted a film that is intriguing in the way it is able to very quickly change from a lighthearted comedy to a bleakly tragic tale. In the process, there are images and scenes that are not easily forgotten.

Rating: 8/10

NOTE: The film was actually shot simultaneously in German and English. The Kino DVD release includes both versions. I have personally only seen the German version and from all accounts, some of the expressiveness of the dialog is lost when the actors are speaking English. Not having seen it, I can't comment on how accurate that is.

Other Contenders for 1930:
All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) was close, but the “preachy” feeling of some of the dialog holds it back somewhat for me.

-Let the debates begin. I feel absolutely certain that this one is different from what others would pick for the #1 of 1930.


  1. Dave, this is an exciting venture!

    Here are my own choices for the year:

    Best Film of 1930: "Earth" (Dovzhenko; Russia)
    Runners Up for 1930: "L'Age d'Or" (Bunuel,Spain)
    "All Quiet on the Western Front" (Milestone, USA)

    So we agree that the Milestone, one of the most shattering of anti-war films (Renoir's 1939 "Grande Illusion" edges it) is close to th etop for this year. I understand what you say there about 'preachy' but this was central to its essence, methinks. It contains some of the most wrenching scenes in cinema history.

    What a fantastic review on DER BLAU ENGEL, a film that I have always liked, even if it's badly dated and static. Still, the deterioration of Jannings's character is eternally fascinating (he went through a similar metamorphosis in the Murnau masterpiece THE LAST LAUGH) I agree that some scenes didn't work in a dramatic sence, and although I'm a great admirer of Von Sternberg, this isn't one of his better films, but it's nonetheless intoxicating, especially that famous song, which can never be forgotten. But the sexpot Dietrich and the incomparable Jannings (I was lucky to see THE LAST COMMAND back in October at the NY Film Festival screening at the Walter Theatre, and was again ravished by his skills, if not quite as much with the film) are electrifying, and I can't fault you for choosing this.

    Great discussion of the plot, characters and film's historical relevence (especially that speculation in the final paragraph of Von Sternberg's (unintentional?) chronicling here of the decline of Germany between the wars.

  2. Sam -

    I should have clarified somewhat on labeling All Quiet on the Western Front as "preachy." I should have said "overly preachy," because I agree with you that it was essential to the film, but sometimes it felt like a character would just begin in on a preaching monologue from nowhere. I agree with you completely on some of the scenes being incredible. I love those extreme long shots, showing the troop movements or the shots of the boys training. Great photography that still looks great.

    I've never seen Jannings in anything else, but like I said in the review, I think that the fact that he was such an accomplished silent actor really benefited him in The Blue Angel. He could do a lot in this role without saying a word -- or at least only with that hair-raising scream at the end!

  3. Dave - That is a most fair clarification. And I completely agree there with what you say about Jennings.

  4. A great choice Dave though personally I would place it in my #2 position. And I thoroughly agree about Jannings. He was excellent as was the young Marlene. Here are my choices...

    1- All's Quiet on the Western Front
    2- The Blue Angel
    3- L 'age d'or

    I am also going to mention "The Divorcee" as a runner up for the modernity of Norma Shearer's character who was way ahead of her time. Others worth mentioning are "The Big House" and "Animal Crackers" (Hooray for Captain Spalding!)

  5. Great choices, John. "L'age d'or" is one that I'm still uncertain whether I really like it or not. Animal Crackers I don't like nearly as much as what the Marx Brothers would do later.

  6. Dave, I love 'Der blaue Engel' - great choice, which I'd support, though I'm also a big fan of 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.

    I've seen both the English and German versions of 'The Blue Angel' - many years ago as a student I went along to a special showing on the big screen (this was the first black and white film I ever saw on the big screen) and was most amazed to discover the film was in English. For years after that I thought it had only been made in English, until I had an argument with my mother who insisted she had seen it in German - we looked it up on the internet and discovered we were both right!

    I've since seen it in German and think you are right that the dialogue is more expressive in this version (I can speak German, after a fashion, so it's even better for me:), as the actors are hampered by their heavy accents in the English version. However, it's well worth seeing both, as Dietrich sings her songs in both languages too, so you hear her sing 'Falling In Love Again' in English in the English version! A lot of Jannings' performance is actually silent, so just as powerful in both. I'd really like to get the box set which has both versions, although I do agree this is such an emotionally wearing film that you wouldn't want to watch it too often. Judy

  7. That's pretty funny about arguing over the language of the film, Judy! Thanks for the comments. I wasn't sure if others would rate this one as highly as I did.

    1931 up tomorrow... and I feel confident that there are two films that are most likely to be chose by everybody. My choice comes from one of these two obvious choices.

  8. I'm just discovering your blog and I find your venture very provocative. You have a good choice here for 1930, and All Quiet is an obvious contender, but I want to say a word for Roland West's The Bat Whispers, just for its rare early widescreen format, its amazing camera movement and art direction. Whatever its limitations as an old-dark-house melodrama, it's a stunning visual achievement for the time.

  9. Thanks for the response, Samuel... I have to admit to not having seen The Bat Whispers. It sounds intriguing though, so I will keep a lookout to try and catch it.

  10. My 1930 pick would probably be All Quiet on the Western Front, but I need to see Blood of a Poet again - I saw it once, recently, and was intrigued; repeat viewings may confirm it as my new favorite of the year. We'll see.

    The only von Sternbergs I've seen are this, Morocco, and The Scarlet Empress - of these, the third is my favorite and the one I would be most comfortable calling "great". As Sam said, great mixture of personal reaction, plot description (which can get boring but which you handled well in this case), and historical context. Looking forward to the rest.

  11. This movie is great for everything, because it had a perfect Director the best cast, and also the movie itself got me inspired to watch it three more times.

  12. Nice blog my friend.. This is so useful, Very appreciative.