The Blue Angel
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At the dawn of cinema's sound era, filmmakers were forced to use huge, clumsy cameras that rattled so noisily that they were encased in small rooms to help eliminate the din. While the sound era opened up new vistas for the spoken word, it also set back the art of motion picture photography by well over a decade. Cameras became relatively immobile. Scenes were filmed from a fixed position with fewer tracking shots and edits.

This was the environment that legendary filmmaker Josef von Sternberg confronted when he began filming The Blue Angel in November 1929. While most of Sternberg's résumé is filled with glorious tracking shots, breathtaking close-ups, and amazing shafts of light, The Blue Angel is somewhat subdued cinematically. Scenes tend to be filmed in medium shots with few of the surprising compositions that would become a customary part of Sternberg's methodology. However, The Blue Angel has remained one of Sternberg's most recognized films.

Part of the movie's allure can be ascribed to the performance of Marlene Dietrich. This is the movie that made her a star. It wasn't her first movie. By this point, she had already appeared in over a dozen films. But Sternberg instinctively picked up on her haughty-but-playful nature and determined now to best use her presence. Under another director's control, she might have become overbearing. But Sternberg allowed her facility for playing sexually alluring women to be balanced and complemented by her sophistication and cool exterior.

Greta Garbo possessed some of the same qualities as Marlene Dietrich, but Garbo brought a more introspective quality to her performances. Dietrich's innate bitchiness was always part of the characters she played. Like Dietrich, Garbo had a seemingly cool exterior, but this coolness was balanced by a faint-but-discernible smoldering sense of warmth. Dietrich was rarely warm but her magnetism has become legendary.

These qualities helped make Dietrich a perfect Lola Lola, the cabaret singer who headlines at "The Blue Angel," a dingy venue frequented by a mix of working-class clientele and horny college students. Lola Lola struts provocatively around the stage, stopping with her hands on her hips, her outfit little more than a bustier. She looks over the audience and grins slyly, as if she knows exactly what's on their minds -- and she doesn't mind their leers one bit. In fact, she thrives on their stares. She's vastly experienced in the ways of love and wants nothing more of her men than the pleasure that they can provide.

For short periods of time, she is capable of exhibiting domestic, bourgeois tendencies, as when Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) enters her dressing room while he's looking for errant boys from his school room. He'd heard about Lola Lola after discovering the boys in his class mooning over her photo. So he heads to The Blue Angel to throw around his considerable weight (i.e., girth) and warn them that he won't tolerate their interference. But his visit doesn't go quite as he planned, for the Professor discovers he isn't immune to Lola Lola's charms. He's an old bachelor with an oppressive sense of self-importance. He charges into The Blue Angel quite confident that he'll put the cabaret troupe in their place and free his students from the cabaret's decadent influence. However, once in Lola Lola's dressing room -- where he finds his own students are already hiding -- the Professor lingers a bit too long. Even though he's certain of his superiority, he hesitates. His failure to be decisive and to follow through on his intentions becomes a key part of his character and we see this character flaw repeated in the movie.

While he's in her dressing room, he's confronted with the equally blustery action of a ship captain who would like to garner Lola Lola's attentions, but Professor Rath has no patience for someone else interrupting his serious discussion with Lola Lola. The welfare of his students is at stake -- so he bodily removes the captain from the premises. Lola Lola is much impressed. No one has fought for her honor in ages. Before, she was toying with Professor Rath. Now, she sees him differently. Soon afterwards, she sings "Falling in Love Again" with the Professor sitting in a prominent balcony position. She sings as if he's the only one in the house. And the next thing we see is the Professor rising from her bed. (He's still fully dressed, and he's clutching a doll, so it's questionable what exactly transpired.)

When the Professor joins Lola Lola at her dinette table for breakfast, we're treated to a scene of affected domesticity (and one of the movie's best scenes). This is where Dietrich really shines as Lola Lola. She exudes some warmth in this effort to woo Professor Rath with her domestic yearnings. "You could have this every day," she tells him. She's vulnerable and she seems a better person for having brought the Professor into her boudoir. This is such a quiet, gentle scene, with birds chirping in the background, that Lola seems capable of leading an altogether different type of life. Professor Rath assumes their life together would mean she would give up her profession and settle down with him. But no, she has no intentions of giving up her vocation. In fact, she expects the Professor to follow her. And once again the Professor fails to act decisively by standing his ground. And thus the noose around the Professor's neck tightens.

While Dietrich's name has become forever linked with The Blue Angel, the movie really belongs to Emil Jannings. This movie is all about Professor Rath's fall. It charts his descent from respected member of the community to his role as a clown in his wife's cabaret revue. In the movie's final scenes, he's completely ineffectual, watching as Lola Lola flirts with a strongman, who she soon leads into her boudoir. Professor Rath's near catatonia is reminiscent of Janning's performance in F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, one of the classics of German silent cinema. However, in the Heinrich Mann novel (titled Professor Unrat) upon which The Blue Angel is based, the Professor doesn't continue his descent into madness. In the book's final pages, he opens a bordello that is visited frequently by government officials. Many critics criticized Sternberg for this change; however, he met with Mann and described his intended changes, and Mann agreed with Sternberg's plans, saying the characters remained the same.

Sternberg shot The Blue Angel with four cameras running simultaneously, much like American television situation comedies of the '50s and '60s (such as I Love Lucy). The camera rarely moves; however, in a few scenes (usually in larger rooms/sets) Sternberg provides more variety in shot selection. In Rath's classroom, for example, Sternberg supplies one of the movie's modest tracking shots (of little more than a dozen feet in length). While Sternberg's usual penchant for stylized visuals is subdued in The Blue Angel, you'll still find hints of Sternberg's presence. For example, Sternberg turns the city streets into ominous, expressionistic narrow avenues of rough surfaces and teetering angles. Visual symbolism appears throughout The Blue Angel, such as when Professor Rath first enters the cabaret: he literally stumbles into a net. Somewhat more subtle is the Professor's cluttered apartment: shadows make the room resemble a prison. More felicitous is Sternberg's use of an elaborate clock with large human figures that move about its face -- a forerunner of the more elaborate statues used by Sternberg in The Scarlet Empress.

Kino's DVD release of The Blue Angel is, simply put, their most elaborate release ever. They have packaged a big two-disc set that includes both the German and the English language versions of The Blue Angel. The English version isn't simply a dubbed version. It's a separate version entirely, with the actors redoing their scenes. Careful observers will notice many differences in the two versions (different camera angles, different camera compositions, different movements by the actors, different editing, etc.). However, due to the thick accents sported by several of the actors, the English version is frequently tough going. (It's also 12 minutes shorter than the German language version.) The DVD package is filled with extras, including Dietrich's screen test for The Blue Angel (in which her characteristic charisma is evident), interview footage with Dietrich, an original trailer, footage of Dietrich in concert, a photo gallery, over 30 bios and filmographies of the filmmakers and cast members, and a production timeline complete with stills. The disc also features an excellent commentary track by German film historian Werner Sudendorf. He focuses on both the movie's production history and a textual analysis, providing many fascinating insights. This is one of the most valuable commentary tracks that you'll ever encounter -- although strangely it isn't mentioned on the DVD's cover. Overall, Kino's release of The Blue Angel is one of the finest DVD sets of the past year and a must-have selection for any serious movie lover's DVD library.

 


The Blue Angel is now available on DVD from Kino On Video in a new digital transfer prepared by the Berlin Film Museum. The double-disc includes both the German and the English language versions. Special features include audio commentary by film historian Werner Sudendorf; Marlene Dietrich's The Blue Angel; Dietrich concert footage; Dietrich interview; original trailers; a photo gallery; filmmaker and cast members bios; a production timeline; and more. Suggested retail price: $34.95 each. The Blue Angel is also available on VHS from Kino On Video (without the extras). Suggested retail price for VHS : $24.95. For more information, check out Kino International Web site.