A decadent orgy of downfall and despair, The Blue Angel belies a third act tragedy, which seeks to uncover what happens when we allow the darker side in all of us to rule our lives. Upstanding professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) appears the modicum of reserve and traditional values, but is he really? Director Josef von Sternberg plants the seed early, having Rath's housekeeper tut-tutting over his unclean apartment, as he himself discovers the death of his pet bird. Innocence shall shortly follow it.
The temptress awaiting Rath and his life of honourable teaching is none other than Marlene Dietrich, whose siren-like cabaret act Lola Lola, belts numbers from the stage of the titular club. It is impossible to see the performance segments as anything other than severely dated. Whilst they wish to be alluring and exotic, watching Dietrich flash her frillies whilst her fellow bear-like female performers swig from pint pots on a miniature stage, hardly qualifies as titillating. Von Sternberg's camera later on, as it swivels up robotically to capture Rath in the balcony, mimics the modern-day feeling of slight awkwardness.
Von Sternberg manipulates Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann's script well to ensure the film appears almost comedic for large parts of the first two acts. There is a suggestion that the director is about to champion the values of free love and the pursuit of immediacy and frivolity before the resonating finale brings all thoughts of this to a close.
Incidentally, there is a story happening on a meta-level here that appears to go against the grain of the values The Blue Angel stands for. In casting the then little-known Dietrich in the lead, von Sternberg became convinced of her power to infatuate and subsequently boosted her star power in the six films they went on to make across the Atlantic. Whilst The Blue Angel suggests that following a muse will lead only to dissatisfaction, despair and, notably, artistic ruin, Von Sternberg was establishing a relationship in the real world which would lead to great riches and fame for both parties.
The Blue Angel though is a film with more worth than merely contributing to a large part of Von Sternberg and Dietrich's respective biographies. In particular, Jannings' performance is a model of subtle character building. His professor is perfectly pompous, a reserved man of honour, before being seduced in the grotty atmosphere of the club. His first entrance into it is key. Note how he is literally and immediately caught in a net, an echo of a conflict with a fisherman later on but more significantly of his inability to escape from this point forwards. As the character begins to realise his mistake Jannings becomes a modicum of visible despair, crestfallen with a submerged rage below his painted-on tears.
The atmosphere that led to this performance appears to be one of some debate and conflict. The accompanying booklet with this set comes with writings by Von Sternberg that describe Jannings as a difficult artistic temperament. Clearly the director too had a hand in many of the disagreements. His ego shines through in a passage that takes a lot of credit for the film's ideas and the improvement of the original story by writer Heinrich Mann. Talking about Jannings, he is less than flattering, describing him as 'fat and ungainly', apparently still sore that, 'in the many books written about and by Emil Jannings, my name is mentioned only once, and incidentally'.
The irony should not be lost that Von Sternberg writes mainly about performers and performances, whilst decrying them as 'nothing more than glorified marionettes'. His recognition of the talent of Jannings in particular is almost subconsciously present. He is an auteur with a grudging respect for the travails of the players he enables. Writing in 1968, Von Sternberg claims Jannings gives 'a competent performance' but has the foresight to admit that 'as The Blue Angel recedes into time, he becomes more and more effective'. He does. It is Jannings, not Dietrich, who holds the key to the heart of the film.
The ability to shatter that heart though, at least at a top level, belongs entirely to Von Sternberg. His presentation of Rath's eventual downfall is heartbreaking and elemental, echoed by the guttural rage the professor eventually cannot contain. As Mazeppa (Hans Albers) arrives to trigger Rath's episode, the emotional and social politics of the film are laid clear; do we really think that, in this world, meeting Lola in The Blue Angel will get Mazeppa very far, in life or love?
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
The Blue Angel is released in the UK on Monday 28th January 2012