“The Blue Angel” directed by Josef von Sternberg was released in 1930 and, as Wikipedia describes it, ” presents the tragic transformation of a respectable professor to a cabaret clown and his descent into madness.” It’s often called a comedy-drama, but that seems based on short moments of humor in a film that shows how easy it is for a man to walk into a cabaret for innocent reasons and end up being corrupted by the predators there. Two versions of the film were made, one in German with English subtitles and one in English. The English version is an inferior production in part because speaking in fractured English completely destroys the atmosphere of the film.
I probably shouldn’t have told my daughter during our Thanksgiving visit that “The Blue Angel” is one of my favorite films. We had been talking about my love of noir films and movies with nasty characters like “The Little Foxes.” She hadn’t seen most of those I mentioned so I told her if she wants to see rock-bottom depravity (and, I mean, who doesn’t?) she should check out Marlene Dietrich’s and Emil Jannings’ performances in this film. As a writer, I often consider the workings of the dark side and how easy it is to become enamored of it until it kills you.
Of the film, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “‘The Blue Angel’ looks and feels more like a silent film, with its broad performances that underline emotions. Von Sternberg, who was raised in Europe and America and began his career in Hollywood, was much influenced by German expressionism, as we see in early street scenes where the buildings tilt toward each other at crazy angles reminiscent of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’ He was a bold visual artist who liked shots where the actors shared space with foreground props and dramatic shadows, and he makes the dressing room beneath the stage of the Blue Angel nightclub into a haunting psychic dungeon.”
While he went on to make additional films with Dietrich, I see this as their best collaboration in part because of those “broad Performances” that Ebert mentions, That sweet song “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” is a haunting and chilling refrain behind the characters, especially Dietrich, a complex individual who brought those complexities to her work. She worked with von Sternberg in “Morocco,” “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express,” “Blonde Venus,” “The Scarlet Empress,” and “The Devil Is a Woman” among other films.
Thomas Caldwell writes that “The vampish woman (Lola Lola) is a force of powerful sexuality, which is aligned with the deadly forces of nature (her animal print costumes and the exoticness of The Blue Angel club) and otherness. Professor Immanuel Rath is the lonely and sympathetic male aligned with civilisation (he is a respected teacher) who falls prey to her untamed femininity. Although by today’s standards the symbolism is inappropriate, the scene where Rath wakes up with a black doll represents the dark and mysterious foreignness of Lola Lola that is alluring yet ultimately dangerous and unattainable. Dietrich’s portrayal of Lola Lola would be extremely influential in the creation of the femme fatale personae that dominated the Hollywood film noir cycle of films.”
The professor cannot help himself. That’s the message I see here as well as the danger of “everyday people” walking into a cabaret or bar where the rules are different and without mercy.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Special Investigative reporter,” a novel about a jaded reporter who sees the dark side in the news of the day,