Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (1930) Director: Josef von Sternberg
Starring Emil Jannings (The Last Command, The Last Laugh) and Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel is a German film that tells the tragic story of the downfall of a Weimar high school professor. At the time, Jannings was hailed as the world’s finest actor. In the title, the word “blaue” has a double meaning – both for ‘blue’ as well as ‘drunk’ – hinting at the drunken nature of the love for Marlene Dietrich’s character. It was one of the first German sound films, and is also known for being the film that brought Marlene Dietrich to international stardom, a fame which brought a continued partnership between Dietrich and Sternberg for six further films. The plot is based on a novel by Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich.
In the story, Professor Rath is a teacher of high school boys who mock him and play pranks on him. He is a bumbling, but commanding presence, who always seems to be slowly calculating things. The students call him Professor ‘Unrat’ (meaning “filth” or “garbage”). At the beginning he is a well established and respected teacher. One night, he punishes several boys for their obsession with a racy local singer, named Lola Lola. He follows them to the Blue Angel in an attempt to chase them out, but stumbles onto Lola Lola, and falls in love with her. Each night, she sings songs like: “Beware of Blondes.” He returns the next night to see her, and is so captivated that he spends the night with her. As he gets lost in their romance, he forgets about his teaching job and shows up late to a chaotic classroom – they have drawn a graphic picture of professor Rath dancing. As the classroom becomes incapable to manage, the professor is fired. He leaves to propose to Lola Lola and he joins their traveling show on the road. He eventually dons the appearance of a clown for the show, and is embarrassed every night. At the same time, he is driven mad with envy for Lola Lola who is a “shared woman.” In the end, he witnesses Lola Lola go upstairs with another man. He is dragged onstage to perform his little clown show back in his hometown where the audience mocks him and his fallen station in life – he laughed at for his empty mind and is forced to crow and lay eggs. He flees the stage in a fit of madness and tries to strangle his wife before running out of the theatre. He wanders across town back to his old school at night – his figure was transformed into a hunched and deranged form. At the conclusion of the film he dies clutching his old desk at school.
The film incorporates elements of Expressionism, with odd shaped shadows and buildings in Germany. Sternberg initially filmed two versions of the movie: one in English and one in German. The German version is generally more accepted today.
The Blue Angel is an marvelous and horrifying film. Following on other German films, it highlights the downfall of a once great man – the downfall of a middle class academic at the hands of a pretty young cabaret singer.