“Anyway, it stopped singing long ago.” So says the housekeeper of Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), just before she tosses a dead bird into the stove. In what appears to be merely a macabre aside, there actually is a significant shade of what will shroud the entirety of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 German production, The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel). The sophisticated, tragic feature proceeds with the persistent reminder that vitality is lost with age. Then comes eventual ineptitude, and, finally, inevitable death. Impelled by tantalizing postcards bandied about by his derisive teenage students, the somber scholar glimpses a trace of the wild side, a side of life foreign to his sensibilities, a side of life that is most intriguing. And as his stuffed-shirt propriety withers quite readily, the pleasures and mysteries of temptation spark a fleeting revitalization. But it is a precarious flame, and it will not burn forever.
On stage at The Blue Angel, a raucous, carnivalesque hotspot, is the corruptive influence that has so enamored his pupils and will, in short order, strike Rath’s own ill-fated fancy. This is where clamoring crowds behold the good-humored showgirl Lola Lola, and this is where a broad filmgoing audience met Marlene Dietrich. Although the young actress had appeared in several silent films, and was, perhaps more significantly, a notable floorshow performer, von Sternberg provided an invaluable visionary thrust behind the trajectory of her ascending star. Considered after first choice Brigitte Helm was unavailable (Helm portrayed the iconic Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927), the baby-faced Dietrich now seems ideal for the part of this racy, exuberant, and amiable chanteuse. But at that point in her career, her coy and playful demeanor was just beginning to complement her astonishingly unabashed and unashamed sexuality, which would later grow progressively more inimitable and provocative.
At the time, though, she fit the bill well as the object of Rath’s affection, hesitantly shared with his curious student body. Rath is dumbstruck by this freewheeling harridan, who swiftly and securely holds sway over his upstanding bundle of shame and flustered emotions. Rath, previously as rigid and routine as the rotating figures repeatedly seen on a sounding clock, enter a perpetual state of befuddlement, comically at first, as “Naughty Lola” sings and swigs her beer. Lola is charmed when Rath defends her honor (probably the first time anyone ever has), and she reciprocates his fondness by tending to his superficial needs. But his domestic desires become wedded delusions, for Lola has no intention of extricating herself from the boozy, bawdy milieu that so informs her character. Their relationship is unconvincing and unstable. Consumed by fantasies and whimsey, Rath is ridiculed and reduced to a distastefully absurd crowing rooster, a humiliated, feeble lapdog, and, ultimately, a degraded clown, a shell of his former self. Lola has taken the edge off his unyielding pride, but his studious, painfully proper veneer has been irreparably shattered. Apathetic, terrifying outburst near the end of the film, followed by a maniacal frenzy, becomes the culmination of Rath’s exposed hypocrisy and a denouement of poetic morality.
Based on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel, Professor Garbage, of The End of a Tyrant, the screenplay for The Blue Angel was written by the triumvirate of Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, and Robert Liebmann (with some uncredited work by von Sternberg himself), and while the source had its own heartbreaking finale, the film’s downbeat conclusion is even more despairing. To that end, casting Jannings was as suitable then as the casting of Dietrich would later become. Sternberg had directed the famed German star two years prior in The Last Command, one of the two films for which Jannings won an Academy Award at the institution’s first ceremony (the other being 1927’s The Way of All Flesh), but Jannings’ Weimar-era work in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) bears the strongest corresponding connotations, as he played another discarded, downcast protagonist.
Additional remnants of Germany’s expressionistic silent spree occasionally appear in The Blue Angel, including ominous shadow play, pointed rooftops, and narrow alleyways, and angular interiors overstuffed with the indicative disorder. Otherwise entrenched in the unsavory cabaret, where Rath is a bumbling, bewildered fish out of the water, and where von Sternberg’s contrived talents excel, the director fulfills the intricacy of his artifice through rigorous, ornate composition and a knack for textured atmospheric enhancement (The Blue Angel’s complex sound design is similarly decorative). Produced by the legendary Erich Pommer, shot simultaneously in German and in English, and showcasing the illustrious cinematography of Günther Rittau, The Blue Angel reveals von Sternberg’s penchant for tactile sensuality, where the exotic and the erotic go hand-in-hand, a connective visual and narrative filament.
Central to this, of course, is Dietrich herself, tossing around her undergarments, tugging on her costume, stretching, posing, teasing Rath and everyone else in the film, as well as those watching it. Acting with impassive confidence and a beguiling physicality, Dietrich’s Lola is earthier than her later von Sternberg heroines, minus the self-conscious luminosity. She is assured if not yet audacious. A temptress and a trainer, it is a mistake to dub her a femme fatale; enticing though she may be, she doesn’t impose anything on men like Rath that they don’t bring upon themselves, to begin with.
By the time The Blue Angel premiered, its director and star were already on their way to America, where Morocco (1930), their second film together, was actually released first, earning them both Oscar nominations. Whereas The Blue Angel is symptomatic of a specific national epoch, Morocco and the five von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations to follow often feel as if they were based on another planet. The succeeding perception of von Sternberg the puppet master and Dietrich the model obscured a dual dependency, a joint cognizance of what each contributed to their mutual prosperity. And von Sternberg didn’t do much to alleviate the ambiguity, declaring, “In my films, Marlene is not herself. I am Marlene. She knows that better than anyone,” but also acknowledging, “I gave her nothing that she did not already have.” Whatever the case, The Blue Angel is where that strange, potent alchemy began—Dietrich cast the spell, von Sternberg gave her the wand. Or was it the other way around?