Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (1930) Director: Josef von Sternberg
Starring Emil Jannings (of The Last Command, The Last Laugh fame) and Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel is a German film that tells the tragic story of a Weimar high school teacher’s fall from grace. At the time, Jannings was hailed as the world’s finest actor (he was the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Actor). In the title, the word “blaue” has a double meaning – both for ‘blue’ as well as ‘drunk’ – hinting at the drunken nature of his love for Marlene Dietrich’s character. The Blue Angel was one of the first German sound films, and it is also known for being the film that brought Marlene Dietrich to international stardom, a fame which soon led to an ongoing partnership between Dietrich and Sternberg for six further films. The plot for the film is based on a novel by Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich Mann.
In the story, Professor Rath is a teacher of high school boys, but the boys mock him and play ceaseless pranks on him. He is a bumbling, calculating man yet he also carries a commanding presence. The students call him Professor ‘Unrat’ (meaning “filth” or “garbage”). At the beginning, he is a well-established and respected teacher, at least by his peers. One night, he punishes several boys for their obsession with a racy local singer named Lola Lola. He follows them to “The Blue Angel,” a nightclub where Lola Lola sings in an attempt to chase the boys away from this alluring licentiousness, but once he sees Lola Lola he quickly falls in love with her. Each night, she sings songs like: “Beware of Blondes.” He returns the next night to see her, and he is so captivated that he spends the night with her. While getting lost in their romance, he forgets about his teaching job and shows up late to an already chaotic and undisciplined classroom – the boys have drawn a graphic picture of professor Rath dancing. As the classroom becomes unmanageable, he is promptly fired. He then flees to the arms of Lola Lola and proposes marriage to her but without any financial prospects he then joins her traveling show on the road. He eventually dons the appearance of a clown for the show where he 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 while back in his hometown where the audience mocks him and we see his fallen station in life on full display – the former professor is laughed at for his empty mind and he is forced to crow and lay eggs for entertainment. He flees the stage in a fit of madness and tries to strangle Lola Lola (now his wife) before running out of the theatre. He wanders across town back to his old school at night, his figure becomes transformed into a hunched and deranged form. At the conclusion of the film he dies clutching his old desk at school.
The Blue Angel incorporates elements of Expressionism, with odd shaped shadows and buildings in true Germanic fashion. Josef von Sternberg initially filmed two versions of this movie: one in English and one in German. The German version is generally more accepted today. The Blue Angel is a marvelous and horrifying film. Following on other German films of the time, it highlights the downfall of a once great man – the collapse of a middle class academic at the hands of a pretty young cabaret singer.