English Title: The Blue Angel
Original Title: Der blaue Engel
Language: German, English, French
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Josef von Sternberg
based on the novel of Heinrich Mann PROFESSOR UNRAT
Cinematography: Günther Rittau
Edward von Winterstein
Josef von Sternberg and his then-paramour Ms. Dietrich’s one-two punch in 1930, released before MOROCCO, the very first Hollywood star vehicle for her, coupled with a gorgeous Cary Grant. THE BLUE ANGEL was shot simultaneously in both German and English, actually it is the very first German full-talkie feature and the first sound picture for the German thespian Emil Jannings, who was quite sought-after in the wake of becoming the first recipient of Oscar’s BEST ACTOR honor in 1929.
While talkie is still in its incipient years, von Sternberg accountably fillets the source novel to keep the central story concise: a middle-aged professor of local gymnasium, Immanuel Rath (Jannings), whose well-maintained scholar life starts to come undone when he is hopelessly swept off his feet by a cabaret performer Lola Lola (Dietrich, a star was born at the age of 29, a sublime rarity in the ageist Hollywood) and marries her. Professor Rath is not a particularly beloved character, a bachelor lives in a tiny gymnasial appartment, often mocked by his pupils as Professor Rubbish, but as an educator, he holds absolute sway in his class, he can impudently blow his nose in front of his students with no one dare to mutter a word. As staid and prudish as he is, his sortie to the infamous titular club inadvertently plies him with the wanting respect from his peers, he is granted with a reserved balcony seat from the magician Kiepert (Gerron), the head of the itinerant troupe, and Lola Lola, that seductive chanteuse, with all her sexualized paraphernalia (stockings, millinery, and bared-skin), he cottons to her prima facie, so much so that, moral yardstick and social rectitude simply evaporate when being contextualized under that sultry spell.
To Lola, Immanuel is definitely not her first suitor – but she obliges his in-earnest affection which is garnished with a tad goofiness – and wouldn’t be her last, out of her line of business, and more saliently, out of her nature, flings and smooches are congenital to her like the air she breathes, that is nothing to do with love, Lola Lola is a modernized vixen, but she has no scruples of who she is and has no intention to change for anyone else’s sake. So the downhill of Prof. Rath is rather plain in sight, he is shorn of his erstwhile respected vocation and assumes the role of the lowest rung in the troupe, the clown, in order to cling to his flamboyant wife, and consumed by the gnawing frustration, jealousy and rancor, until a fatal return to the Blue Angel club becomes his undoing.
Emil Jannings, at first, seems to be stuck in Professor Rath’s bookish carapace with eye-rolling tedium, but strangely carries off the often incoherently designated transformation of his character to a purely riveting acme edging the ending where he doesn’t need to speak one single word but a catharsis of poignancy and empathy has been eloquently conveyed through his gesticulation and bearings (with a substantive helping hand from the make-up department), that’s what a thespian well-burnished in silent pictures can pull off in an elemental thrust. By comparison, Dietrich’s Lola Lola is above all, deployed as a signifier of temptation but conferred with understated nonchalance and flippancy, only that recurring ditty “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)”, composed by Friedrich Hollaender, is deathless together with Lola Lola’s mold-breaking manifesto of women’s screen presentation.
Albeit some perceptible hiccups in its audio track, Josef von Sternberg’s pioneering black-and-white oldie mostly retains its verve and potency in its gothic mise-en-scène, emphatic character presentation and visual splendor (Kiepert’s magic trick is a primitive hoot), showing up the metamorphic bridge between a full-fledged silent era and the irrevocable prevalence of talkie which would bring sea change to both performers and filmmakers alike.