The Blue Angel
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Blue Angel (German: Der blaue Engel) is a film directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1930, based on Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrat. The film is considered to be the first major German sound film and it brought world fame to actress Marlene Dietrich. In addition, it introduced her signature song, "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)".
The Blue Angel follows Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) through a transformation from esteemed educator at the local Gymnasium (college preparatory high school) to a destitute vagrant in pre-World War I Germany. Rath’s descent begins when he punishes several of his students for circulating photographs of the beautiful Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) the headliner for the local cabaret, The Blue Angel. Hoping to catch the boys at the club itself, Professor Rath goes to the club later that evening and meets his eventual downfall: the lovely Lola herself.
Consumed with desire and determined to remain at Lola’s side, Rath returns to the night club the following evening (to return a pair of panties that were smuggled into his coat by one of his students) and stays the night with her. The next morning, reeling from his night of passion, Rath arrives late to school to find his classroom in chaos and the principal furious with his behavior.
Rath subsequently resigns his position at the academy to marry Lola, but their happiness is short-lived, as they soon fritter away the teacher's meager savings and Rath is forced to take a position as a clown in Lola’s cabaret troupe to pay the bills. His growing insecurities about Lola’s profession as a “shared woman” eventually reduce him to a mere shell of the man he used to be, consumed by his lust and jealousy. The troupe returns to his hometown, where he is ridiculed and berated by the Blue Angel patrons, the very people he himself used to deride. As Rath performs his last act, he witnesses his wife embrace, and kiss, one of her former lovers, and Rath is enraged to the point of insanity. He attempts to strangle Lola, but is beaten down by the other members of the troupe and locked in a straight jacket.
Later that night, Rath is set free, and makes his way towards his old classroom. Rejected, humiliated, and destitute, he passes away in remorse, clenching the desk from where he once taught.
Von Sternberg calls the story “the downfall of an enamored man” (Sternberg, 11) and calls Rath “...a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low.” (Wakeman, 1045). Some critics saw the film as an allegory for pre-war Germany, but von Sternberg is very clear that he did not intend to make a political stand: “The year was 1929, Germany was undivided, although the real Germany, its schools and other places pictured in the film were not German and reality failed to interest me.” (Wakeman, 1046; Sternberg, 13).
Marlene Dietrich’s portrayal of a liberated night club performer not only cemented her stardom, but also established a modern embodiment of a vixen. Lola-Lola’s lusty songs (written by Friedrich Hollaender, Robert Liebmann and Sam Winston) slither their way into Rath’s heart, entrapping him and sealing his fate. The story's melancholy simplicity adds to the beauty of von Sternberg’s most famous work and undoubtedly was a factor in its feverish success, in both Germany and America.
Emil Jannings had asked Sternberg to direct him in his first sound picture, Sternberg and Jannings had clashed on the set of their previous collaboration The Last Command (1928), and von Sternberg had vowed never to work with the actor again. The following year, however, he and Jannings reconciled and they began to collaborate on a film about Rasputin for UFA-Paramount. Sternberg was less than intrigued by this prospect, however, and as an alternative he was offered the idea of an adaptation of the Heinrich Mann story Professor Unrat. Sternberg restructured the story to fit his tastes; simplifying moral themes and emphasizing the anguish of the teacher. (Sternberg, 9-11)
The Blue Angel is famous for introducing the world to von Sternberg’s ingénue, Marlene Dietrich. Her radiant sensuality might be blamed for the censorship the film faced in Pasadena, California (Black, 50). C.V. Cowan, censor for Pasadena, found offensive (though Jason Joy, the nation's censor, did not) and chose to remove many scenes (Black, 50). Reception of the re-cut film was not good. Both the German and English versions are widely considered classics.
The film was banned in Nazi Germany in 1933, as were all the works of Heinrich Mann and Carl Zuckmayer. Yet it is known that Hitler often viewed the film in his private cinemaTemplate:Fact, and was mortifiedTemplate:Fact when Dietrich crossed the Rhine in American Army uniform a few days before his suicide.
Lola Lola's nightclub act has been parodied on film by Danny Kaye (in drag) as Fraulein Lilli in On the Double, Madeline Kahn as Lili von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles and Helmut Berger in Luchino Visconti's The Dammed.
The simultaneously-filmed English language version was considered a lost film for many years until it was rediscovered in a German film archive. This version will have its premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on 19 January 2009 as part of the Berlin and Beyond film festival.
Rath's transformation has been interpreted as symbolic of Carl Jung's description of a man's infatuation with his anima. According to Jung, the anima is a man's idealized version of woman. For women, such a projection is described as the animus.