Home Video Hovel- The Blue Angel, by Tyler Smith
In many ways, Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel seems like a sort of film noir. Its story- about an ordinary man drawn into a sultry relationship by a flirtatious vixen- is right out of the James M. Cain. It is a visually expressionistic marvel, it’s forbidding streets as dark and lonely as any urban detective film. And yet, somehow, The Blue Angel manages to surpass the darkness of the noir genre and become something much more disturbing. Almost like an emotional horror movie.
While the film has a truly tragic ending, it hardly starts at a place of happiness. Emil Jannings plays stuffy college professor Immanuel Rath, who is regularly ridiculed by his students. He is clearly hurt by their comments, but chooses to respond with punishment and contempt. Oh, yes. There’s contempt, alright. Plenty to go around, in fact, as the merciless students may make fun of their professor, but they save their real cruelty for the best-and-brightest goody-goody. He is framed, laughed at, and eventually even beaten in the most humiliating way possible. This is a subplot that is never really explored; it is only ever portrayed, perhaps as a way to further build the unsympathetic world that these characters inhabit.
Rath’s students have been slacking off in class recently, possibly due to their preoccupation with a club called The Blue Angel and the voluptuous singer, Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich). The professor goes to the club to investigate, only to become intrigued by Lola. He sees one of his students and goes to chase him down, winding up backstage talking to the elusive and playful singer. It’s only a matter of time before Rath finds himself returning to the club to see Lola. His obsession turns into love; or, at least, the closest thing he has ever felt to love.
As Lola and Rath’s lives become intertwined, his colleagues warn him about getting mixed up with a girl like this, and he responds- nobly and pathetically- that they shouldn’t talk that way about the girl he’s going to marry. Sure enough, the two get married, Rath gives up his job and his life and goes on the road with Lola’s theatrical troupe. Over the years, we see Rath’s pride and protection give way until he is quite literally reduced to being a clown in a magic show. As Lola and the troupe eventually return to the Blue Angel club, Rath is faced with the consequences of his decisions. He is about to go on stage in clown makeup and assist a two-bit magician in front of his former students and colleagues. His old, boring life that he was so eager to get out of suddenly looks pretty good to him, especially when Lola starts making eyes at a sleazy strong man. With the love of his life now looking elsewhere, and his self respect destroyed, Rath has a total mental breakdown.
Certainly, this is all very tragic, but there is a macabre, disturbing quality to it all. When we’re at the club or with Lola, the frame always seems cluttered with theatrical brik-a-brak, making for a messy and claustrophobic quality. In contrast, Rath’s classroom is neat, tidy, and manageable. To see this man go from as controlled an environment as his college to the disorganized, chaotic world of the club is to immediately feel uneasy. We know that this man does not belong here, even as he becomes more acclimated to it. The costumes, the makeup; it all becomes so garish and dirty by the end of the film.
But by far the most effecting aspect of the film is its acting, particularly by Jannings. His professor seems uptight and unemotional in a way that is very believable. It’s not that he feels nothing, it’s that he chooses not to show it. We see his thoughts and his feelings very briefly before we see the silent, conscious decision to push them away. It should be noted that Emil Jannings was a successful actor from the Silent Era, whose performances in such films as The Last Laugh left him fully equipped to play a character with the complexity of Professor Rath. By the end of the film, the character is so disgusted with himself and so horrified at the turn his life has taken that he can’t even bring himself to speak. He just stares, mouth agape, before he finally screams out a guttural, animalistic screech that creates in the viewer both sympathy and repulsion.
Marlene Dietrich and the rest of the cast are all stellar, as one would expect, but it really is Jannings’ film, and this is a good thing. It is an emotionally daring film, centered around a vulnerable, willing performance. It somehow sounds strange to describe so uncomfortable a film as a pleasure to watch, but it really was. It is visually beautiful and thematically engaging. And it stands up to any modern film in its desire to show the darkness of humanity; it is raw, vulnerable, and fascinating.