“The Blue Angel,” a crowning achievement of Weimar cinema and the most famous of the seven collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, is newly on Blu-ray from Kino. The finely restored transfer, with sharp picture quality and crisp sound highlighting Von Sternberg’s early-talkie innovations, is the original German-language version. (Two versions were shot simultaneously in 1930 — the lesser known English-language version was long considered a lost film until its discovery in the early 2000s.)
Silent star Emil Jannings plays Immanuel Rath, a cantankerous professor at the local mens’ college. Upon learning that his students are frequenting the Blue Angel, a racy showgirl joint headlined by the excessively named Lola Lola (Dietrich), the professor pays a visit to the bar of ill repute to cow the young men. Instead, he too becomes obsessed with Lola, eventually asking for her hand in marriage. But as the honeymoon bliss wears thin and the cash in Rath’s pockets wears down, the one-time professor, now a regular dancehall bum, must seek increasingly humiliating employment on the same stage from which he first admired his wife.
Dietrich, in one of her most iconic roles, is sheer sex and wit as Lola Lola. She’s plumper than she was later in Hollywood, and seemingly less severe and intimidating. This is perhaps due to the actress speaking in her native German, as opposed to German-accented English, which gave her a regal, distancing quality. Dietrich’s performance in the film is at once energetic, funny and surprisingly subtle. While crooning “Falling in Love Again,” she stands with her legs squarely apart, as if her body is a sturdy barricade ready to turn men to jelly. Yet in quieter moments backstage, she drops the aggressive body language and lets her face do the talking. When the destitute Rath whines about playing a clown in an upcoming show, she sighs and says simply: “No one will force you.” But her eyes communicate years of having to go onstage, even when weary and unenthused. A job is a job.
Pay attention to the sound design of “The Blue Angel.” During the sequences in Lola’s dressing room, the noise and brassy piano music from the theater is completely silenced by a closed door. When showgirls move in and out, and the door swings open, the hooting and hollering from the show suddenly intrudes into the dressing room. Surely an ordinary wooden door wouldn’t cut the racket, nor would von Sternberg clumsily expect the viewer to believe so. Why does the director insist on such a blunt difference in sound? I think he’s trying to create two spheres — the performative, fantasy sphere of the stage, where women wear top hats and artificially blown-up skirts, singing about moth-like men burned in their seductive flames; and the real-life, behind-the-scenes sphere, where these same women get changed between numbers, and chat with their fellow performers.
Yet late in the film von Sternberg breaks the line between the showroom and backstage. By this point Rath is beset with poverty, selling cheeky postcards of Lola Lola for cash. As we see him move from table to table, von Sternberg cross-cuts to Lola in her dressing room. But the raucous sounds of the Blue Angel remain at full volume. The loud, shiny hell of stage life has crept into reality. It’s the party neither Rath nor Lola can escape.
Indeed, the last 30 minutes of “Blue Angel” are the film’s best, with Von Sternberg playing with noise and visuals to communicate a dream turned sour. Pages are torn from a calendar with a hot poker; first days, then years. During his wedding dinner, the professor crows like a rooster at his good fortune and beautiful bride. Later, when forced to appear onstage as a clown — in front of his former students, no less — he again crows. This time it’s the anguished cry of a man who’s brought about his own downfall.
The restored Blu-ray of “The Blue Angel” is available for purchase on Kino’s website. Check out Marlene Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel” here, in which she seamlessly moves between sweetly singing and venomously upbraiding her piano player. One of the few embeddable trailers is below, but without English subtitles.