The Blue Angel arrives on MUBI billed as the film that made Marlene Dietrich an international superstar. It is also one of Josef von Sternberg’s first talkies—well, his second, I believe, after Thunderbolt. It is, however, the first German talkie, a fact made moderately ironic due to von Sternberg filming a concurrent English-language version which nobody really bothers with anymore. I hardly know why I bothered mentioning it myself; the version on MUBI is the full German-language version.
The film follows Professor Immanuel Rath, beautifully rendered by Emil Jannings. Rath teaches some kind of humanities course at the local school, and is very, very concerned with his students’ morality. When he finds out that the lot of them spend their evenings at The Blue Angel, some kind of underground cabaret, he grows incensed. Resolving to confront them, he barges into the lowly establishment one night, only fall under the spell of one of the dancers, Lola (Marlene Dietrich, in a performance more intelligent than degenerate). So taken with her is he, that he resolves to marry her, even though it may mean the loss of his career.
It’s painfully obvious that this is an early talkie, as there are several awkward moments involving the soundtrack. The first notable instance is probably with Professor Rath in his funereally silent classroom. As the students take a quiz on Shakespeare, Rath opens the window, and we hear the sounds of a nearby choir fill the room. Closing the window instantly makes the room grow preternaturally silent again. A similar thing happens at the Blue Angel itself: In Lola’s dressing room, it’s as silent as a church on Thursday. But as soon as the door opens, the cacophonous bustle of the patrons fills the soundtrack, as if the characters have magically transported into the middle of the ruckus.
Okay, this is not a big deal; it’s more amusing than anything. I’m perfectly willing to forgive the technological limitations of a film given its era. What is kind of a big deal is that von Sternberg directs some scenes as though they were in a silent film. This leads to some very awkward moments that grate against the film’s realism. And yes, despite some set design choices inspired by the famed German Expressionism of Murnau and Wiene, von Sternberg places The Blue Angel firmly in a naturalistic environment.
Consider when Rath first feels his lusty affections for Lola stirring. They are alone in her dressing room, and von Sternberg fills the scene with sidelong glances and silent gestures. It’s sweet yes, but would feel more at home in a silent film like The Docks of New York—or in a decidedly unrealistic film, like Barry Lyndon.
Or consider when Rath enters his classroom, after having spent the night with Lola, to find the students have filled the chalkboard with salacious caricatures of him and the dancer. They start shouting and catcalling him, and he yells at the boys to stop. Then, we cut to the hallway. The boys still whistle and roar at full volume, but Rath’s voice is nowhere to be heard. This continues for a very long time, as we see professors from other classrooms gathering to see what all the fuss is about; eventually the principal hears. When we cut back to Rath’s room, he’s just standing there, as the students continue howling.
Are we really to believe he just stood there the entire time, unmoving? It certainly provides time for a nice shot of the school’s faculty coalescing about his door. Unfortunately it undercuts any realism the scene was working towards. Again, it would have worked beautifully in a silent film. Here, it’s just awkward.
Spoiler warning: The following paragraphs discuss the ending.
Honestly, I didn’t even mind this awkwardness all that much. What knocks the film down several pegs for me is that, ultimately, it’s just a manipulative melodrama. The final humiliation for Immanuel Rath is having to appear in Lola’s show as some kind of Pagliacci-like clown. For some reason, it is very important that they perform the show in Rath’s hometown, where his old students and colleagues can see and mock him.
First of all, why is it necessary to perform there? There is vague talk of it leading to bigger shows in Berlin, London and New York, but I’m unconvinced. Also, if this act is so humiliating, why is Rath performing under his real name? Why do you think they invented stage names, yo? There’s a reason porn actors adopt names like Richard Cocksure.
A much more likely explanation is that this turn of events is just the writers’ contrivance, designed to elicit the most pity from the audience. Most shameful is the last scene, where Rath crawls his way back to his old classroom to promptly die amidst his past middle-class glory. For me, the cloying obviousness of the moment destroyed any power inherent in the scene.
End of spoilers.
Ultimately, The Blue Angel is an okay movie from a great filmmaker trying to find his way around a new technology. Hints of his greatness abound, but nothing like what we saw in his silent The Last Command, or would see four years later in The Scarlet Empress. Helping immensely is Emil Jannings, whose screen presence and acting chops carry the film. (Dietrich doesn’t do it for me, though she is entertaining.) An interesting, early curio.
The Blue Angel will stream on Mubi through February into March.