Blind Spot Series: The Blue Angel (1930)

The Blue Angel

Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a professor of English and literature, is a stuffy, stern man, the type who makes all of his students write the word “the” two hundred times because one of their classmates pronounces it incorrectly. When he learns that some of the young men in his class have been frequenting a cabaret called The Blue Angel to see singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), he becomes determined to put a stop to it. As such, he visits the club one night on a kind of moral crusade — only to find himself falling for Lola. His fascination with her quickly sends his life into a downward spiral.

Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel was shot in both a German version (Der blaue Engel) and an English version, a fairly common practice in the early days of sound. The DVD I borrowed from my library happened to contain the English version (which I wasn’t expecting), so it’s possible my comments may not all apply to Der blaue Engel.

Rath Lola

The basic storyline of the film — a man is destroyed by his misguided love (or lust) for a woman — may have been fairly fresh back in 1930, but it’s such a cliche by this point that I found it a bit difficult to become fully invested in it. There aren’t any huge surprises or twists in the plot, which played out more or less as I expected. That said, I did like the fact that Lola isn’t an out-and-out villainess or a gold digger who takes Rath for everything he’s worth; on the contrary, she ends up supporting him financially. She can have fun at his expense and be quite unkind, but she’s more complex than a run-of-the-mill femme fatale, and her pragmatism (pointing out that the “cheap crowd,” as Rath labels the cabaret patrons, gives the couple a living) stands in sharp contrast to the once upright and respectable Rath’s total collapse.

I also liked the appearance of the film. Naturally enough for a director working in 1930, Josef von Sternberg got his start in the silent era, and the visuals in The Blue Angel are strong, with a great deal going on in many of the frames. (In particular, I enjoyed the posters haphazardly papering the walls of Lola’s room.) The slovenly, often chaotic atmosphere of The Blue Angel — where the performers sit down and drink beer onstage and no one seems to care — makes a perfect counterpoint to the orderly rows of desks in Rath’s classroom, encapsulating the major change in his life as he moves from one world to the other.  Undoubtedly there’s a lot that I didn’t pick up on in this first viewing, symbolically and otherwise, and I look forward to seeing the German version at some point in order to compare the two.

This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.

7 thoughts on “Blind Spot Series: The Blue Angel (1930)

  1. The DVD I saw had both the English and German versions, and if I recall they aren’t all that different – not like the English and Spanish “Dracula” anyway, which were shot with different casts and scripts! So far as the “freshness” of the plot – the Vampire who destroys a man’s life goes back at least to Theda Bara in “A Fool There Was” (1915), and even to the Kipling poem that inspired it. If I recall (again), Heinrich Mann was deliberately satiring this concept in the book this movie is based on, but the movie blunts some of his sarcasm.

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    1. That’s interesting about the two different versions — thanks for the information! The fact that the book was a satire on the vamp concept is very interesting too, and it might explain why Lola was more complex than I expected.

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  2. Pingback: Blindsided by L’ATALANTE | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

  3. I watched this this past summer for the first time as well, though I selected the German version to view. On the Kino DVD that I watched, there was a comparison between the two using a representative scene, and while they were indeed staged in the same way, the German version seemed superior. For one thing, when the students are reading the poem in English, and he corrects the pronunciation, it makes much more sense in the German-speaking context.
    I think I enjoyed it more than you did, but it’s not my favorite Dietrich vehicle that I’ve encountered. I liked MOROCCO much more, with a rakish young Gary Cooper as the love interest.

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    1. That’s interesting. Something I read suggested that the German version is generally considered superior, so it’s nice to have a specific example like that. I haven’t seen much of Dietrich’s work in general, and most of what I’ve seen has been somewhat later in her career (Stage Fright, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, Judgment at Nuremberg). The only other early film I’ve seen is Desire, also co-starring Gary Cooper, which was fun; I’ll have to watch Morocco at some point.

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  4. I find the film truly great since it foreshadows the nazi catastrophe and the demise of authority (personified in the figure of the teacher) in Weimar Germany, the sorry state of its institutions and decay of the etiquette in the society. True classic of German expressionism

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