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The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel(1930)

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Cinema stylist Josef von Sternberg made his reputation in the late 1920s, perfecting a dense, highly sensual visual style in pictures like Underworld and The Docks of New York. Jamming the B&W frame with clutter, smoke and atmospheric lighting, Sternberg conjured up dream visions of shady nightspots and dockside beer halls. As he was associated from the beginning with European 'art' filmmaking, it was no surprise that when the German star Emil Jannings relocated to Hollywood Sternberg would be chose to direct. With the coming of sound the actor went back home, but by then Sternberg's work was so well known that he accepted an invitation from Ufa's Erich Pommer, to again direct Jannings in Berlin. The movie that resulted, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) brought together one of the most dynamic artistic pairings of the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg and Berlin actress Marlene Dietrich. Together they would redefine exotic Hollywood glamour for the next six years. Ms. Dietrich had already appeared in several light comedies, but Brigitte Helm and Louise Brooks were consistently winning the best film roles in Weimar Germany. Under von Sternberg's direction, the saucy Dietrich would reshape herself as a refined sex symbol, taking over the top glamour roost from Hollywood's queen of European sophistication, Greta Garbo.

The Blue Angel was filmed in two language versions. For many years the only copies of the German Der blaue Engel were incomplete and of poor quality. Kino Classics' new restored Blu-ray release includes both the original, and the English-language version distributed in America by Paramount.

Heinrich Mann's original novel Professor Unrat is a caustic character study; the 1930 film softens it into the tragedy of Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a pompous schoolteacher brought low by passion. Rath's rowdy students consider him an old fool. Rath catches his boys with racy photos of the sexy attraction Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and goes to see her for himself at The Blue Angel, a dockside music hall run by the shrewd showman Kiepert (Kurt Gerron). Rath is fascinated by Lola Lola and falls deeply in love with her. The showgirl toys with him but is also touched by his innocence. The scandal brings his career as a teacher to an abrupt end. Lola Lola accepts Rath's proposal of marriage but does not take him seriously. Now a part of Kiepert's road company, the professor slips into a fog of contradictory emotions. He must sell her racy photos to earn his keep; Kleipert finds humiliating ways to work him into the act. Lola Lola begins to tire of her husband just as the company returns to The Blue Angel, where Kiepert promotes Rath as the town's own native son. Kiepert costumes Rath as a clown to play the idiot-patsy in a comedy routine. By this time Lola Lola has taken the handsome new strongman Mazeppa (Hans Albers) as her lover. Rath only realizes this in the middle of his pathetic performance.

The Blue Angel is a powerful star vehicle for Emil Jannings, although it essentially replays the storyline from F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh: a man falls from a position of authority and loses his self-respect. In this case the situation is more complicated, as Professor Rath is actually a ludicrous failure as an educator. He becomes sympathetic only when charmed by the Dulcinea-like siren of the beer halls. Rath's fall into shame and degradation is foreshadowed by the appearance of a clown that he keeps bumping into backstage. The professor will soon sink lower than the clown, having raw eggs broken over his head as a catatonic stooge in Kiepert's cruel comedy act. In this way the clown functions as does the Geek that haunts Tyrone Power in the frightening noir Nightmare Alley.

Audiences responded enthusiastically to Marlene Dietrich's plump, vulgar music hall performer Lola Lola, a gutter siren who interrupts her cheap songs to take swigs of beer. The girls sit in a row on stage during the performance, as if the show were serving double duty as a brothel lineup. Lola Lola parades in provocative, trashy outfits, such as a hoop skirt with the back missing to show off her underwear, or another skirt so sheer that her body within stands out in silhouette. There's no question that she's for sale. Like Don Quixote, only the foolish Professor Rath looks upon Lola Lola as a lady.

Most of Lola Lola's songs are obvious teases, such as the self-explanatory I Am the Naughty Lola. But her beautiful signature tune expresses her basic nature, "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt". In both English and German, the lyrics absolve Lola Lola of responsibility for being so lethally attractive: "Men flutter to me like moths around a flame, and if their wings burn I know I'm not to blame." The Blue Angel was considered progressive (or decadent) because it refuses to condemn its heroine as a femme fatale. It shares that quality with G.W. Pabst's luminous Pandora's Box, which also acquits an amoral siren as an innocent victim.

Josef von Sternberg's German picture is a riot of expressionist visuals and his stylish settings. Professor Rath's dusty and sterile classroom contrasts with the wild beer hall, where nautical bric-a-brac, stuffed seagulls and salacious posters of Lola Lola crowd the frame. German cameraman Günther Rittau makes use of extreme lighting for the scenes of Rath's final humiliation on stage. 1930 was the first year for full audio tracks in Germany, and The Blue Angel's dense layering of echo-y music and sound effects contrasts strongly with the precise selectivity of sounds heard in Fritz Lang's "M". The only audio choice that will jar modern audiences occurs when doors are opened and closed backstage. Loud music from the hall outside is unnaturally silenced when doors are shut. It now plays as unintentionally funny.

The film's mysterious appeal lies in the chemistry between the tawdry but gentle Lola Lola and Professor Rath, whose reactions rage from bellowing indignation to baby-like shyness. For Lola Lola sex is just a tool of the trade, and part of her feels flattered by the attention of this gentlemanly, foolish innocent. Yet it's a poisonous relationship, especially when Lola Lola purposely fools around with the handsome strongman in plain sight. How much will the Professor take before he lashes out in rage?

By the time The Blue Angel opened in Berlin Dietrich and Sternberg were already on their way to Hollywood. Under Sternberg's guidance Dietrich slimmed down and altered her look for her Hollywood debut with Gary Cooper. Morocco was actually released first, as Paramount's executives doubted that Lola Lola would appeal to American audiences. After half a dozen glamorous Dietrich star vehicles, Sternberg's ornate style went out of fashion. After he stopped turning out hits studio executives became impatient with his dictatorial attitude. But Marlene Dietrich would maintain careful control of her glamorous image, re-inventing herself as a comedy star and a cabaret singer. As a patriotic naturalized citizen she toured war fronts to entertain the troops. Although her film appearances thinned out in the 1950s, they included memorable performances for directors like Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch, Mitchell Leisen, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles.

Dietrich also stayed in close contact with the composer Friedrich Hollaender, who continued to write special material for her as well as maintain a busy Hollywood career. The music in The Blue Angel is a marvelous evocation of the Weimar-era cabaret sound.

Kino Classics' Blu-ray of The Blue Angel is a two-disc set with excellent copies of both language versions. The German original is the same disc released a year ago by Kino, while the English variant is sourced from elements in almost as good condition. The soundtracks on both versions are very clear, and will help to erase the memories of the substandard film prints that once circulated.

The English-language version has many alternate dialogue scenes in English, but scenes with inessential dialogue are allowed to play out in the German language. Instead of duplicating the German cut, the English version uses alternate takes so as to retain a first-generation original negative. The audio work for both versions is of equal high quality. Even with the technological limitations of 1930, we hear Dietrich clearly when she mutters intimate endearments to her blushing new suitor.

Some interesting extras are included on the English language copy. A visual comparison shows that the two versions share little or no original footage in common. We see Dietrich's screen test, where she pretends to interrupt herself while singing (not very well) to a piano accompaniment. A later interview is far too brief, but we are given a couple of songs from later TV appearances. An image gallery and trailers are included as well.

By Glenn Erickson