Film review, by Jason Day, of The Blue Angel (1930), the tragedy/drama about a teacher who falls for and is destroyed by a cabaret artist. Starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.
Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a stuffy teacher at a boy’s school. Respected by his peers but mocked by his charges, he lives a life dedicated to education. When he catches the boys admiring a saucy postcard of nightclub singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich), he confronts the club manager for corrupting the boys.
The manager calms him by offering free drinks and the best seat in the house so he can watch the show. Dazzled by Lola-Lola’s skimpy outfits, long legs and bawdy bierkeller routine, he quickly falls for her.
Initially charmed by his old-world style of courting and defence of what is left of her honour, Lola-Lola marries Rath but quickly tires of him and sees other men. This sets Rath on a path of self-destruction that will see him abased and ruined.
Review, by Jason Day
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Men cluster to me like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame…
Often and erroneously, Marlene Dietrich’s involvement and performance is the sole focus of this film.
Stunning and memorable though she is, I prefer to buck critical tradition and look away – momentarily – from her superb legs and focus on the first-billed star – Emil Jannings.
Emil Jannings is someone few members of the public today will have heard of but back in the 1920’s he was one of the most famous actors on the planet.
After a period as a major stage actor in WWI Germany, he went on to become a huge movie star in his native Germany. He headlined many of the major productions of the era, often working with directors such as Fritz Lang, Ersnt Lubtisch (both of whom would later decamp to Hollywood and enjoy highly successful careers there) and F.W. Murnau, in such classics as F.W.’s colossal Faust (1926).
Flash forward 19 years and Jannings – who has spent that time working as an actor publicly supportive of the Nazi regime – is running wide-eyed, ranting and raving to Allied Forces liberating WWII Germany, clutching a golden statuette in his hand to prove he is ‘American’.
That statuette, of course, was an Academy Award, the first one ever awarded for a Best Actor performance, way back in 1928 when Jannings stopped audiences in their tracks with his turns in The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928).
Brandishing such a gaudy ornament did nothing for him in the long run. He still had to go through ‘de-Nazification’ – the initiative in which Nazi influence across Germany was eradicated – owing to his previous, effusive comments about the benefits of the regime and how glorious he thought Adolf Hitler was. He never regained his former idol status and died, alone, in 1950.
Jannings’ stature as a top-flight silent movie actor came to an abrupt end when silence gave way to the noise of the human voice. When blockbuster talkie The Jazz Singer(1927) won two Oscars at the same time he snared his, Emil – who had a thick German accent – sniffed failure in the air and swiftly headed back to Deutschland.
His first movie there was supposed to have been a biopic of Rasputin but director Josef von Sternberg – whom Jannings had worked with in America and personally selected to ease his way into sound movies – vetoed this and suggested they make a version of social-realist author Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrath, a critique of the hypocrisy of middle-class Berliners – instead.
The rest, as they say, is history. The resultant film concerns a teacher who goes to the bad when he succumbs to the slatternly charms of a sleazy nightclub singer. He marries her and she debases him leaving him broken and humiliated.
This never occurred in the novel, but it perfectly reflects the denouement of any other Dietrich/von-Sternberg production. The tragedy that befalls an impossible love, one that can romantically never be realised, wrapped up in stunning photography and production design.
Jannings’ performance is a highly effective portrayal of stilted repression, a swansong not only from him as a five star motion picture actor, but of silent movie acting, which he personified, itself. His performance is completely at odds with the new sound medium, but this anachronism is sweetly touching.
When we first see him at the school, it is the repetitiveness of his daily routine you notice. Rath orders, with mathematical precision, his books and then with theatrical flair, unleashes his handkerchief, blows his nose and replaces it. It’s a remarkably precise moment, one that director Stanley Kubrick – who famously had an eye for the telling, smaller details in a movie – would later say was one of the greatest moments in cinema history.
These early scenes are mind-numbingly slow and drawn out, but this is not because of any slackness from von Sternberg. It means the subsequent scenes at the bawdy Blue Angel are ramped up with sex. It also ensures that the contrasts between middle and lower class Germany are glaringly obvious.
Josef von Sternberg worked closely – intimately, some would say – with Dietrich before and during this movie’s production, shaping her acting style and look, much to the frustration of main star Jannings.
It shows. When she first meets Jannings, Dietrich is backstage and in her element. Cool, detached and seductive as she scans her captive audience and surveys Rath, her middle-aged suitor. This is the start of her iconic screen image, the fantasy seductress who personified a passion that was always distant and unobtainable.
She ascends to the stage and her beer-sloshed pedestal wearing stockings, garter belt and frilly knickers. Standing proudly with legs wide apart, confidently controlling the baying males in her audience, surrounded by chubby chorines. ‘They Call Me Naughty Lola…as I play my pianola’ she trills. They are entranced, as are we.
Ultimately, despite his strong, panto performance, Jannings is outclassed by his leading lady – legs and all. Her pizzazz, sardonic, slutty, indolent, cheap but intoxicating air effortlessly ensures that the man she loathed in real-life during production and reviled later on was left leagues behind her for his WWII allegiances would never get a look-in here.
FYI – the production design for this film is brilliant. Look at the tumble-down, crooked houses of the slum in which the Blue Angel nestles. This movie is one of the last gasps of 1920’s Expressionism. The buildings of working-class Berlin mirrors its louche, sexually promiscuous and very possibly diseased citizens. We contrast the seedy with the upright and respectable middle-class area Professor Rath and his ilk – stiff and straight – reside.
Find out where you can see The Blue Angel on its UK 2019 re-release.
Cast & credits
Director: Josef von Sternberg. 1hr 48mins/108mins (German version) Ufa. (PG)
Producer: Erich Pommer.
Writers: Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmoller, Robert Liebmann.
Camera: Gunther Rittau, Hans Schneeberger.
Music: Friedrich Hollander.
Sets: Otto Hunte.
Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Hans Albers, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Reinhold Bernt, Karoly Huszar.