I’ve scoured the internet to find what I think are the best links for further reading on The Blue Angel, director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. Here are links and some highlights from each.
The Blue Angel
Review by John Baxter at Film Reference.com
Von Sternberg poured all his energy and imagination into the role of Lola, creating a star vehicle for the young Dietrich. Borrowing from the drawings of the erotic artist Felicien Rops, he created a figure out of a teenager’s sexual fantasy, a vision in black stockings and heavy make-up, wearing an arrogantly tilted top hat.
Review by Cullen Gallagher at Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Dietrich’s casual air as she strips before the Professor and drops her panties into his palm is shocking not so much for what she reveals (though flesh is certainly plentiful) but for her frankness. She is as comfortable as she is confident about her sexuality, a rare combination not only for that time, but even now. The clothes might come off more easily in modern movies, but Dietrich’s sexuality was never so simple as just skin.
Review by Jeremy Heilman at Movie Martyr
There seems to be a constant struggle present in a von Sternberg film between the need of the actors to define their characters and the need of the director to define the actors, by making them his aesthetic objects. Von Sternberg seems far less concerned with filling our hearts than filling the frame, yet at the same time his movie becomes that much more effective, since we know the director is not putting us through an emotional wringer.
Josef von Sternberg
“The Unhappiest Man in Hollywood.” Scott Eyman reviews Von Sternberg, John Baxter’s 2010 biography on Sternberg, for the Wall Street Journal:
He was a man who kept large, aggressive dogs, who avoided direct eye contact, who presented his opinions as incontrovertible fact and who treated everyone with unconcealed disdain or contempt. On the set, he had a blackboard; if crew members or actors wanted to talk to him, they had to write their names on the blackboard, and he’d schedule an appointment. “The only way to succeed,” he once said, “is to make people hate you. That way they remember you.”
Here’s an excerpt from John Baxter’s capsule biography of Sternberg, found at Film Reference.com:
There is a sense in which Josef von Sternberg never grew up. In his personality, the twin urges of the disturbed adolescent towards self-advertisement and self-effacement fuse with a brilliant visual imagination to create an artistic vision unparalleled in the cinema… His films reflect a schoolboy’s fascination with sensuality and heroics. That they are sublime visual adventures from an artist who contributed substantially to the sum of cinema technique is one paradox to add to the stock that make up his career.
Then there’s Tag Gallagher’s profile on Sternberg for Senses of Cinema. For some reason it’s not included among their Great Directors profiles, but it should be. It’s one of the best online pieces I’ve ever read on any director, and it all but cemented Sternberg’s place among my favorite directors. Here’s just a tidbit concerning The Blue Angel:
Dietrich was 29, had played in twenty pictures, and was a familiar name in the German theaters and cabarets. Von Sternberg made her a superstar by giving her the same in-your-face presence he had given Bancroft. In America, where The Blue Angel had not opened, he made her a star a second time in Morocco. In the meantime he had had her lose weight and taught her body language and the rhythms we saw already in his pictures with Georgia Hale, Evelyn Brent, Betty Compson, Fay Wray (and Bancroft); Dietrich does not have to speak (and rarely does): the sparsity and nakedness of her gestures reveal everything, provocatively, because imponderable, mysterious, even to herself. Von Sternberg’s direction, as always, was almost purely mechanical (“Count to six and look at that lamp as if you could no longer live without it”), but his methods purified Dietrich’s energy.
There’s the official Marlene Dietrich website run by her estate, which has 16 sections devoted to Dietrich’s legacy (unfortunately the same song sung by Dietrich plays every time you click on a new section, which gets tiresome). Somehow it’s outdone by the Marlene Dietrich Collector’s Page, which has over 20 sections of memorabilia and information covering the many facets of her lengthy career.
A good, succinct career appraisal can be found authored by Robert Pardi on FilmReference.com:
The von Sternberg/Dietrich combination represents a singular symbiosis of visually oriented auteur and perfect camera subject. If Garbo drew the camera to her like a magnet, Dietrich not only fascinated viewers with her sultry glare but transfixed every other aspect of the mise-en-scène, a smoky world of sequined nets, exotic feathers, and glistening surfaces masked by shadows. It is a cinema in which style is the substance.
And of course, YouTube has no shortage of clips. A must-see is footage of Dietrich’s screen test for The Blue Angel. Unfortunately it can’t be embedded here, so we’ll have to settle for this immortal moment in cinema history: