Monday, May 21, 2012

The Blue Angel

Marlene Dietrich's performance as the burlesque singer Lola Lola is one of the most iconic screen incarnations of the dangerous woman who lures a man to his destruction. This role in The Blue Angel was Dietrich's breakthrough; director Josef von Sternberg discovered her here and would make her his muse in many subsequent films. She radiates sex as the singer who wins the heart of the stuffy, sexless Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), an aging bachelor whose sheltered existence makes him especially susceptible to Lola's womanly charms. Rath initially only goes to the club the Blue Angel because he's outraged to learn that his students have been going there at night, but he keeps returning because of Lola.

The professor's fascination with the singer is charming and almost childlike; he becomes flustered and foolish in her presence, very unlike the stern disciplinarian he is with his students. This was an early venture in sound filmmaking for everyone involved, and it shows in the broad, physical performances, especially Jannings' turn as the professor. He blushes — it's obvious even in black-and-white — and sputters, his eloquence totally gone. Sternberg stages numerous deliciously naughty scenes that play up the professor's total helplessness before the spectacle of Lola. She drops her cigarette case and he goes scurrying under the table, fumbling around to recover the spilled cigarettes, but getting distracted by her long stockinged legs splayed out next to his head. "Send me a postcard," she says, her voice dripping with insinuation. Later, Rath gets drunk and wakes up in Lola's bed, clutching a doll, which he examines quizzically, like a child with a new toy. That's how he is with Lola in general, as though he's discovering women and sex for the first time, which of course he is.

The film then relentlessly, pitilessly follows Rath's downfall, his sad descent from respected professor to pathetic clown. Rath's boyish pursuit of a notorious woman like Lola causes him to lose the respect of his students and his colleagues, and he's soon drummed out of the college. In the scene where he loses his job, he sits at the front of the class, toying with a flower that Lola had given him, surrounded by mocking chalk drawings that his students had drawn on the blackboards behind him. The camera tracks back, leaving him isolated there, receding into the distance, and Sternberg repeats this unforgettable, simple but effective shot at the very end of the film. Rath then marries Lola and joins the traveling revue run by the magician Kiepert (Kurt Gerron). When Rath discovers, on his wedding night, a pile of risque pictures of his new wife, he demands that she stop selling these souvenirs. Her deadpan response is telling, and chilling, as she tells him they better hold onto them in case he's ever poor. Sure enough, Sternberg immediately cuts to a shot of Rath, some time later, shuffling through the postcards, waiting for Lola's performance to end so he can walk around from table to table, selling them to the club patrons.

The film reaches a heartbreaking, absolutely shattering climax when the revue returns, after five years away, to the Blue Angel in Rath's hometown, the first time he's been back since his disgrace. In the meantime, his relationship with Lola has deteriorated, and the childlike bliss he once felt with her has long since vanished, along with his dignity. The man who once virulently defended her virtue, calling Kiepert "a pimp" for convincing Lola to drink with club patrons, now finds himself in the same position, living off of her beauty and seductiveness, living off of her appeal to other men. Worse, Kiepert sells the Blue Angel show on Rath's name, knowing that his former friends and students and neighbors will flock to the club in order to see the disgraced old man perform as a clown alongside his sexy, provocative wife. This is the final assault on Rath's dignity, though he's perhaps even more shaken up by Lola's blatant infidelity, her flaunting of her new dalliance with a strongman who's also performing at the club.

Rath's stage act is harrowing to watch: he stumbles onstage in a daze, pulled along by Kiepert, standing utterly still, his posture slumped and his face frozen, while the magician performs his tricks and gets laughs by smashing eggs on Rath's head. The show, it's clear, is only successful to the extent that it humiliates the professor: that's what everyone is there to see, and they laugh uproariously at anything at Rath's expense, while remaining silent for Kiepert's magic tricks. At a key moment, Rath is supposed to crow like a chicken while Kiepert makes eggs appear from thin air in front of the professor's face, but Rath stays silent until he sees Lola, backstage, kissing and embracing another man. Kiepert pulls him back onstage, telling him to crow, and he does, letting out an anguished, horrifying sound, a sob of fury and despair ripped from his very soul. He cries like a chicken, for the delight of the audience, but it's a heartrending sound, a sound of such raw emotion that it provides all the justification that could ever be needed for the switch from silents to talkies.

Dietrich's songs are also unforgettable, and another big reason why this was one of the very first major sound pictures. Her dry, deep delivery makes her ribald songs seem offhanded, as though she's so blasé about her own sexiness that she can simply drawl out these naughty come-on tunes. She stalks about the stage as she sings, not wiggling or dancing; there's something almost mannish and unfeminine about her stage manner, but only because she knows damn well that she doesn't have to oversell. She just has to stand there, stretching those long legs, singing those songs, and the men will helplessly fall all over her. That's why her signature song includes the oft-repeated phrase, "I can't help it," because she really can't. There's just something naturally seductive about her, a force of nature that's beyond her power to control. She really does have some feelings for Rath, it seems, and she thinks he's sweet and charming when he defends her from the caresses of other men. But everything she liked about him is worn away by the reality of living with her lifestyle, so their relationship is doomed to failure.

The Blue Angel is a tremendous film, a classic that endures for far more reasons than its undeniable historical relevance. It was the film that made Dietrich a star, and that forged the Dietrich/Sternberg partnership that would yield six more collaborations in the next five years. It also helped Sternberg transition from silents to talkies. The Blue Angel occasionally betrays its transitional nature, especially in the way sound from outside is abruptly cut off whenever a door shuts, a device Sternberg makes a bit of a gag out of during the backstage scenes. It's also notable that much of the action, particularly Jannings' comedic bits, plays out without dialogue, getting across the substance of a scene through the actors' body language and facial expressions. It's a film with one foot still in the silent era, and yet its use of sound can also be explosive and powerful, which is a big part of what makes the film so dazzling. It's the best of both worlds, straddling two very different modes of filmmaking, ushering in the new era while reaching back for some choice tricks from the old. The Blue Angel has it all: it's sexy, funny, gorgeously shot, and above all, deeply tragic.


Judy said...

I saw the English version of this great film on the big screen many years ago at an arthouse cinema when I was a student, and was blown away by it. It was many years later when I discovered that there were two versions, in German and English, shot simultaneously - I've since seen the German version and that is even greater, but we really need both for Dietrich's songs in both languages. I agree that there is a lot of great silent acting in Jannings' performance, which certainly helps in the English version, as his heavy accent gets in the way (you can see why it sank him in Hollywood) - but that is a great point about the crowing being an effect which could only come in a talkie. And you sum the film up perfectly in your last line. After watching some of von Sternberg and Dietrich's other films together in recent weeks, I've been thinking I must go back to this one - now I'll have to do so even sooner!

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Dietrich of "The Blue Angel" is a rough draft for what Sternberg was to do with her only a short time later in "Morocco." There her insolent sexuality blossoms into something rare and strange and marvelous.

I saw Dietrich perform her one-woman show at the Lunt-Fontaine theater back in 1968. It's one of the greatest pieces of theater I've ever seen. Just her on stage with Burt Bacharach and his orchestra. But it was like witnessing a spectacle with a cast of thousands.

Sam Juliano said...

Deeply depressing 'taking the fall' film in THE LAST LAUGH tradition, that contains another extraordinary Jannings performance, but known chiefly (as you note) for the black-stockinged Marlene Dietrich's now legendary turn and the seductive song "Falling in Love Again" which is one of the famous moments in all of German cinema. By any barometer of measurement, it's one of Von Sternberg's finest achievements, and you have again brought great insight to a silent classic. Yes, body language and facial language are invaluable here.

Ed Howard said...

Judy, I've only seen the German version. It's a shame that Jannings couldn't make it in Hollywood - especially in light of his subsequent life and career after heading back to Europe. In any event, he's amazing here.

David, I'm very envious of the Dietrich show you describe; must've been a jaw-dropping experience to see her perform live.

Sam, yeah, Jannings is always excellent, especially playing this kind of tragic character as in The Last Laugh and this film.

MP said...

I recently saw The Blue Angel for the first time and I must admit that your writings about it describe exactly how I appreciated the film. It makes me want to catch the other films of the Dietrich/Sternberg collaboration...
Sternberg's mise en scène just elevates the performances of Jannings and Dietrich.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michael. The lead performances are stunning indeed, and Sternberg's gorgeous aesthetic makes them even more potent.

Aidy said...

I've heard about this film before, but after reading your excellent review on it, I'll have to take a look at it! I'm familiar with Marlene Dietrich, so I'm eager to hear her voice once more in such an emotional film.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Aidy. You should definitely check it out, it's a classic.

nem baj said...

I can't remember where I read that the 'blue angel' is actually the beam of the cinema projector, the essence of film itself. Was it in Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma ? Or in Gaylin Studlar's essay (In the Realm of Pleasure, 1988) ?

Although from a cinematic point of view this not Sternberg's best, I think this is his most influential film.

The Blue Angel is a perfect illustration of Deleuze's insights on the possible relationship beetween visual pleasure and the masochistic framework. Your depiction of Lola is spot on: indeed « she can't help it » for she needs to be some kind of animal (as will later be that other Viennese, Max Ophüls', Lola) in order to incarnate a masochist's ideal. Das ist ihre Natur. And yes, she shows a motherly benevolence to Pr Unrath; for she's not a sadist, but the 'active masochist' in their relationship - and in our relationship to the screen.

Thus, Lola escapes both the destiny of the 'evil woman' and that of the 'damsel in distress' which were the main characteristics of the female sex on screen before her. The Blue Angel is the birthplace of the femme fatale, and at the same time of women in film as subjects and not (only) objects. Hence her posterity as both a feminist and LGBT film icon.

PS: and of course the music (as well as the lyrics of the most famous song) is by Friedrich Hollaender, which would later become unseparable from both Marlene Dietrich and Willy Wilder.