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Dietrich in a Silk Hat

Apr 20, 2005 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Brilliant performance by Emil Jannings; the sultry performance that made Marlene Dietrich an international star

Cons:Mediocre narrative; little character development

The Bottom Line: A must-see restoration of a classic film, featuring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, from German Weimar Cinema, before the rise of the Nazis

The names Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich became forever linked by the collaboration of the two over a span of seven films, beginning with the present one. Those films turned out to be the pinnacle of Sternberg's career and launched Dietrich as an international femme fatale.

Historical Background: Though Josef Sternberg (1894-1969) was later known by the aristocratic sounding name "Von Sternberg," through the inventiveness of a Hollywood producer, he was actually born into an impoverished Orthodox Jewish family in Vienna. He spent some of his school years in Jamaica, Queens, New York and some back in Vienna, but settled finally in New York when he was seventeen. There he took work as a film editor for World Film Company and gradually moved up to writer and assistant director. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War I, Von Sternberg moved around a bit through Europe and America before settling in Hollywood in 1924. He got his first shot at directing a film in 1925, with The Salvation Hunters, when an aspiring actor wanted to fund his own film debut. The result was interesting enough to gain Von Sternberg a contract with MGM, but MGM was unhappy with his work on his first two projects and turned each of them over to other directors to finish. He had no better luck making a film funded by Charlie Chaplin for Chaplin's protégé, Edna Purviance. Though the film was completed, Chaplin never released it. Finally, in 1927, Von Sternberg completed his first successful film, Underworld, one of the earliest gangster movies and the beginning of Von Sternberg's years of peak success. One of the films made by Von Sternberg during the silent film era was The Last Command (1928), through which he met the great German actor, Emil Jannings.

In 1930, Von Sternberg received an invitation from Jannings to come to Germany and direct a film based on a novel by Heinrich Mann (older brother of Thomas Mann), entitled Professor Unrath (1905), set in Wilhelminian Germany (the Teutonic social equivalent of Victorian England). The resultant film, Der blaue Engle (1930) ("The Blue Angel") would be remarkable for more than one reason. It was to be the first ever "talkie" from German Weimar Cinema, as well as the film that would launch the international career of film diva Marlene Dietrich. For a few brief shining years, German cinema competed effectively with Hollywood, with such treasures as Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), Lang's M (1931), and Pabst's Threepenny Opera (1931), but it was all soon to be brought crashing down by the suffocating rise of National Socialism.

In Germany in 1930, Von Sternberg searched high and low for an actress sexy and sultry enough to play the seductive Lola Lola and finally found her on a Berlin theater stage. Marlene Dietrich had already played small and lead roles in German films before Von Sternberg "discovered" her, but he became her Svengali, molding her on-screen and off-screen persona into the sexy and mysterious international star that she would become. Even before The Blue Angel had been completed, Dietrich had been signed to a contract by Paramount. She followed Von Sternberg to Hollywood, abandoning her husband and daughter, Maria (later actress Maria Riva), in the process. Six of her first seven Hollywood films were directed by Von Sternberg, including among them Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Scarlet Empress (1934). Their professional relationship ended after their last collaboration, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), turned out to be a box-office failure.

Von Sternberg's filmmaking style was quite distinctive. His work was visually bold, pictorial, and mannered. He concerned himself more with visual style than either character development or plot. He was a stringent taskmaster who sometimes imposed difficult requirements on his actors in order to achieve precisely the look he was after. He placed great emphasis on lighting and was a master of chiaroscuro, but sometimes seemed more intent on presenting his characters as aesthetic objects than engaging human beings. Both his strengths and weaknesses are abundantly evident in The Blue Angel. Von Sternberg continued to direct films as late as 1953, but never again matched the luster of his works with Dietrich.

The Story: Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a fastidious, repressed, and provincial martinet and an English professor at a boys high school in Germany. He rules the boys in his classroom with an iron hand, but they mock him as Professor "Unrat," a nickname meaning approximately "garbage" or, inferentially, "asshole." When he catches one of the boys with a provocative picture postcard featuring a vamp, Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), currently performing at the Blue Angel nightclub, he decides to investigate. He hopes to catch the boys red-handed and also to denounce the vixen for bewitching his students and club owner for contributing to the delinquency of the minors. The professor, however, soon finds himself under Lola's spell as well. He falls in love with her and is consumed by jealousy when a sea captain, flush with money, wants to buy Lola's time. Rath is soon proposing marriage to Lola and she accepts (for some reason beyond my comprehension). At his wedding, Rath crows as though he were a cock in a henhouse.

Rath is promptly fired by his employer and is soon reduced to following his wife's traveling troupe from gig to gig. One humiliation is gradually piled on top of another. Rath is soon hawking picture postcards of his wife to customers of the dives and, later, performs as a pathetic clown in the troupe's magic act. The coup de grace occurs when the group returns to Rath's hometown. The club is packed with all of Rath's old colleagues and students, who have come expressly to see the old patriarchal and moralistic professor duly humbled. Rath resists going on stage, but is pressured into doing so by his employer and by his wife. As Rath suffers the indignity of the taunts from his former colleagues and students, Lola is cheating on him backstage with the strongman from a rival act. Rath finally cracks under the strain, crows his cuckoldry, and attacks Lola in despair. Later, his degradation is rendered complete.

Themes: The basic theme, hedonism vs. rigid adherence to the demands of respectability, is related both to the personal choices of Professor Rath and to the political and social situation that existed in Germany in the early thirties. Rath is forced to choose between the status and power that he has as a professor or the sexual gratification inherent in being married to a sexy tramp, but he cannot have both. To German audiences of 1930, it must have seemed clear that Von Sternberg's intent was to denounce the decadence rampant in German society, but modern viewers can just as readily interpret the director's sympathies as lying with the provocative Lola Lola. Viewers have to decide for themselves whether the moral of the story, on the personal level, is the stupidity of excessively uptight prudishness or the dangers of succumbing to lustful desires. Certainly Rath made a crucial mistake in projecting his ideals onto Lola, imagining that she would become a reputable wife for a respected professor. It's always self-deluding to imagine that we can change another person into the manifestation of our own desires.

At the broader social level, the Weimar Republic of Germany was on the verge of collapse in 1930, under the unsustainable burdens of war reparations and hyperinflation. To escape from the unbearable pressures of daily life, the German people poured into the cabarets and reveled in increasingly decadent pursuits. The Blue Angel is about the unmaking of traditional German social values, with the professor representing the German class structure and old-fashioned Catholic and Lutheran prudishness and Lola representing the rampant, carefree moral decline of the masses.

Production Values: The weakest aspect of The Blue Angel is its script, providing neither character development nor credibility. It is hard to imagine, for example, the professor falling in love with Lola after just a couple of brief, non-romantic meetings, but still harder to imagine Lola accepting a marriage proposal from an over-weight, prudish, middle-aged man. Lola and the professor are married for several years before the fateful events in which the professor sinks into oblivion, but we learn nothing about their relationship during that time, positive or negative. Suddenly, out of the blue, Lola casually cheats on her husband when they return to his hometown. Taken at face value, the narrative is rather weak, though it succeeds somewhat better as allegory for the social situation in Germany.

Sternberg's strength as a director was his visual stylishness. Every frame in this film is lovingly designed, with great appreciation for screen space. The sets are earthy rather than ornamental, as were often featured in later Sternberg films. Sternberg's eye for lighting and shadows was surpassed perhaps only by the likes of Dreyer and Eisenstein. The film editing, on the other hand, is poorly done, providing too little narrative continuity.

Emil Jannings, born Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz in 1884 in Rorschach, Switzerland, was son of an American father and a German mother. He ran away from home at age sixteen and took up acting after a brief stint as a sailor. He was a solidly build man and an imposing screen presence. He was a superstar of the silent film era, before his classic performance in Blue Angel. He was the luminary of the film, not Dietrich, at the time of its release, and it is he who gives the film its emotional grounding, with a strong performance that ranges from stuffy teacher, to love struck suitor, to proud husband, to cuckold in despair. When the Nazis came to power, he supported their ideology and even received a medal from Goebbels and appointment as head of a film company that made his films. After the defeat of the Nazis, Allied authorities blacklisted Jannings, effectively ending his career.

Marlene Dietrich manages to hold her own in the illustrious company of Jannings. She is coolly sexy, confident, and mysterious. She is brassy and in control as she delivers the sultry strains of "Falling in Love Again" in a top hat and tacky black stockings. With her very feminine sounding first name combined with her masculine surname, Dietrich was ideally equipped to become iconic of the gender-bending femme fatale. She popularized slacks as a standard part of the feminine wardrobe, engaged in stylish cross-dressing on-stage and on-screen, and often manifested sexual ambiguity. Her influence is evident to this day in feminine fashions. When her film career slowed in the 1950's, she became a recording artist and cabaret performer. Her voice in 1930 did not yet possess the raspy quality it would later develop, but she still managed to imbue her songs with a seductive eroticism.

Kurt Gerron, who plays the magician in this film, was later killed at Auschwitz. Reinhold Bernt takes a nice turn as the mute clown, August.

Bottom-Line: If you decide to purchase this film, you've got several options from which to choose. The old VHS versions, such as the one from Hollywood Classics Collectors Edition, are poor quality prints. The two DVD versions are a good deal better. There's an attractive single disc DVD version that came out in 2001, but the finest product, at a bit higher cost, is a splendid two-disc collector's version from Eureka, with restored film prints and an impressive package of worthwhile extras. First off, you have a choice of the German or English versions of the film. Neither was post-dubbed. Von Sternberg simultaneously filmed versions in both languages, anticipating international release. The English version is about twelve minutes shorter, in more pristine condition, but features slightly less satisfactory performances than the German alternative. An audio commentary tract by German film scholar Werner Sudendorf is provided for the German version of the film. There's also a side-by-side comparison of a scene from the German and English versions, illustrating the subtle differences. Other gems in the set include the 1929 screen test by Dietrich and three concert performances by Dietrich of songs ("Falling in Love Again," You're the Cream in my Coffee," and "Lola") from the film, dating from 1963 and 1972. There's also an interesting interview with Dietrich, who is decked out in strikingly bright lipstick.

Obviously, my recommendation is for the premium two-disc set with the splendid set of extras and high quality restoration. This is must-see for students of film history. The Blue Angel comes in German and English alternative versions and has a running time around 99 minutes.

You might want to check out these other excellent films from Germany:

The American Friend
Beyond Silence
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Das Boot
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Kings of the Road
The Marriage of Maria Braun
The Nasty Girl
Pandora's Box
Run Lola Run
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Threepenny Opera
The Tin Drum
Wings of Desire

Recommend this product? Yes

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