Lost In Lust: Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) – Masters of Cinema review
The baleful Teutonic exactitude of this cautionary tale is all the more shocking for how much fun Marlene Dietrich makes it until that point.
The Blue Angel
(Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
Sometimes, a film’s reputation can have a surprising effect. When first released, The Blue Angel was very much a vehicle for acclaimed German actor Emil Jannings, whose star billing is never in question: he’s in every scene, and even gets a bigger font in the film’s credits. But history was to tell another story. Tastes changed: Jannings’ theatrical, very mannered style of performance fell out of favour, and the more spontaneous, sensual work of then-unknown co-star Marlene Dietrich took hold… capturing the attention of first director Josef von Sternberg, then of The Blue Angel’s audiences, and then the whole of Hollywood.
It is, of course, easy to see why Dietrich had such an impact: she’s spell-binding, practically the model for every sexpot who ever graced the screen. It’s vital that the character of Lola Lola be convincing as someone who could lead a man to his ruin at first sight, and Dietrich’s aloof, louche sex appeal does the trick. But, if you go into the film knowing only the Dietrich legend, the film’s focus on Jennings’ Professor Rath has the power to shock. 83 years on, and nothing has dented the stark cruelty of its parable of lust.
The film unravels like one of Lola’s shows. The first half flirts with us, delighting with satirical, almost farcical comedy. When Rath suddenly realises he’s overslept at Lola’s house and will be late for school, von Sternberg reveals what’s going on in the classroom in his absence in a cheeky, very funny three-shot sequence. The editing has the rhythm of a striptease, but what happens when the metaphorical clothes are shed?
In its final act, von Sternberg drops the facade to reveal the film’s bleak heart. Initially, it’s merely a saucy bit of scandal as Rath is overwhelmed by the liveliness of the titular club, captured in delirious, teeming composition. But by the end all of the hustle and bustle have been sucked out of the frame, leaving a funereal atmosphere as a broken Rath is humiliated in a sequence of uncomfortable power.
Quite what this says is open to question. Von Sternberg was really a Hollywood player, filming in Germany as a one-off, and there’s no doubt that there’s a Hollywood morality to how events play out – it’s a classic cautionary tale about hubris and lust. The trouble is, we’re talking about Weimar Republic Germany, where the accusations of decadence levelled at the real-life Blue Angels were wielded by Hitler as he sought the approval of conservatives. The puritan zeal with which the film goes about dissecting Rath poses some awkward questions about people’s priorities back then… although the Nazis, uncultured killjoys that they were, ended up banning the film once they came to power.
It’s precisely that ambiguous tension, the existential dread of Rath’s situation, which makes the film so interesting. Early on, his ham-fisted seduction of Lola is watched by a quizzical, sardonic clown. It’s a brilliant piece of wordless comedy… but the laugh dies, frozen like the smile on a clown’s face, when it’s Rath’s turn to wear the wig and make-up. It completely transforms the earlier image, turning the original clown into a tragic figure, a harbinger of doom sizing up his replacement.