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.
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.