Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, first released in 1930, is a legendary film and, like many legends, it has accrued a lot of dubious hand-me-down readings. Supposedly, it’s the story of a hidebound professor who is fatally corrupted by a sexy nightclub singer, set against a backdrop of the frenzied decadence of Germany during its brief respite between imperialist and fascist regimes. But the film, which retains an impressive amount of power for such an aged relic, is less clear-cut than that and its intentions are more subtle. Only a puritan would think that Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) meets his horrible fate because he has abandoned the straight and narrow for the maleficent charms of the singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). This isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s a tragedy, and the professor’s journey from pillar of the community to homicidal maniac is less a descent than an opening up that reveals the self that was always there.
The Blue Angel is also the beginning, and arguably the high point, of the Sternberg-Dietrich legend, the first of eight films they made together between 1930 and 1935. Sternberg already had seven films to his credit (including 1928’s The Last Command, with an Oscar-winning performance by Jannings) and Dietrich had already appeared in 14, to little effect. During their collaboration, the actress would perfect her iconic image and the director elaborate on his plushly intricate visual approach. But on this first film, the fabled von Sternberg chiaroscuro is in early bloom and somewhat overridden by a pervasive German expressionism.
Still, there are many signature touches, as when Professor Rath first enters the Blue Angel, the nightclub where Lola Lola is appearing, and becomes entangled in one of the director’s inexplicable nets — or later when the professor’s murderous rage is acted out in a psychic aquarium of muted, revolving lights and watery shadows.
As for Dietrich, she’s not yet the svelte and glamorous figure she would become, but instead somewhat plump and common — which has the effect of making her seem more human than she would in her subsequent career. As a vamp, she’s rather passive. When Madonna appropriated the Dietrich image for her sleek gallery of characters, it was a highly idealized version of Lola Lola that she focused on, streamlined to fit in with the singer’s ongoing subtext of athletic sex — the original Lola’s motor runs at much slower pace and she’s about 10 years away from frumpy. Her attitude toward Professor Rath is first one of amusement and then of genuine intrigue after he stands up for her honor against the advances of a drunken sailor. You get the impression that she marries him out of some combination of boredom and temporary gratitude.
But it’s generally agreed that once she starts singing, Dietrich’s peculiar charisma is already evident. Jannings, however, has taken his lumps over the years as someone who has to be indulged, an old-school ham who acts with his eyebrows. And yet his performance here, while certainly a period turn and a rather sentimental take on masochism, benefits from being more than just a one-note rendering of a bullying tyrant who gets his just desserts. In fact, Jannings’ Rath, rather than being a commanding authority figure, is a pompous clown with a soft side, someone who becomes depressed when his pet parrot dies, comically embarrassed when Lola flatters him and genuinely outraged at the boorish behavior around him.
To understand the true nature of Rath’s progress from apparent stability to dissolution, it helps to keep in mind the intent of the author of the book the movie is based on, Heinrich Mann, a social critic with a strong satirical bent. It’s not decadence that’s being exposed during the scenes at the tawdry nightclub — it’s provincialism, it’s small-town kicks.
Rath is a figurehead in an outdated village hierarchy who plunges into the pit after his first exposure to cosmopolitanism, the irony being that the great outside world of sophistication comes to him in a seedy cabaret that books traveling acts too amateurish to play the big cities. But he’s defenseless, even against this ersatz vitality, and it burns away his sustaining facade. Or, to paraphrase another legendary movie, King Kong, it wasn’t beauty that killed the beast — it was second-rate show biz.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.