Marlene Dietrich’s Stairway to Hell: THE BLUE ANGEL and Sternberg’s Infernal Designs

The nightclub – a den of debauchery and forbidden, perverse pleasure – is a recurring motif in the films of Josef Von Sternberg.  Even as early as Underworld (1927), Sternberg was using the nightclub as a symbol for wild excess and the power of female sensuality.  In The Blue Angel (1930), the nightclub is a hellish trap for Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings).  The first time we see him inside the club, he’s enmeshed in a swath of nettings and rope, a web symbolic of the entrapment he will later suffer.

It’s worth noting that the reverse shot, which suggests Rath’s view of Lola, is a shimmering vision of beauty, unaffected by the netting in front of his face. It’s as if he can’t see the trap he’s walked into.

Later he is boxed in by walls, doors and three-sided mirrors; the cluttered, claustrophobic rooms of the Blue Angel are an urban thicket that Rath is too naïve to traverse successfully.  He’s furiously carted down trap door steps and up a balcony staircase, until finally he ascends the seductive spiral staircase that leads to singer Lola Lola’s (Marlene Dietrich) private abode.  He has entered the trap of the Blue Angel and, like a deer in the headlights, he is stunned.

Sternberg achieves this feeling of inescapable entrapment through a tight, masterly control of space and mise-en-scene.  In Sternberg’s films, sets and interior locations are not just settings in which his actors play out their dramas. Sternberg’s nightclubs are characterized by overstuffed, baroque décor, hemmed in by walls, doors and accumulated objects.

Among the many motifs Sternberg uses to convey the feeling of being drawn into a sensual trap, perhaps the most dynamic is that of the staircase. Throughout the first sequence in the nightclub, Rath’s character stands at the base of the stairs, while Lola goes up and down the steps, disappearing into the room above, dropping her panties on Rath’s shoulder below, teasing him with the suggestion of sexual adventure.

The spiral staircase to Lola’s private room in The Blue Angel is not just a means of ascent, but of descent, of going further and deeper into the pleasure-filled prison of the nightclub world.

This isn’t the first time Sternberg uses the staircase to suggest a world of fantastic pleasure waiting above. In Underworld, an alluring woman appears at the top of the stairs and one of the feathers from her dress descends down to the bottom of the stairs where the hapless alcoholic, Rolls Royce, picks it up.

Royce is immediately enthralled.  She makes her descent into the Dreamland Café and Royce’s slow, inevitable entrapment begins.

In The Blue Angel, Rath is guided up the stairs to the balcony, a private vantage point for Lola’s public performance. He is then captivated by Lola’s gaze, as if her performance seems to be just for him. Sternberg’s mastery of framing spatial continuity reinforce this feeling of elevation and escape that belie a state of entrapment.

The next shot finds Rath snoozing in Lola’s upstairs abode, holding a doll. Sternberg’s expressive lighting, with the windowpane shadows looming like the bars of a jail cell, or a baby’s crib.

Rath, in trying to possess Lola, finds himself possessed by her, both infantilized and enslaved by his own desire. His ascent up the spiral staircase was paradoxically a descent into loss of self, rendering him an object for the fickle Lola to play with and toss away.  The Blue Angel nightclub is littered with clutter, evoking volumes of sordid, unspoken histories: posters of past shows, ship’s tackle, children’s dolls, birdcages. Now it adds Professor Rath to its landscape of detritus.

Jennifer Baldwin is a freelance writer and teacher living in metro Detroit. She is a contributor at Libertas Film Magazine and writes about classic movies and culture at her own blog, Dereliction Row.

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