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The Blue Angel  (German Version) (Josef von Sternberg) 1930


        Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel might be the first masterpiece of the sound cinema, though I suspect that conception might have as much to do with my own admitted lack of cinematic knowledge regarding its contemporary films as the strengths of this particular work. It’s a brilliant, vitriolic condemnation of pre-WWII German Conservatism set mostly in a cabaret. It makes a fascinating counterpoint to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (which is remarkably similar in setting and theme) because it was made before the Nazi party’s rise in power, and the lack of a specific subject to attack here makes the movie more universal than it might have been if it simply attacked the twentieth century's favorite bad guys. 

        In any case, the movie pulls few punches. Though it is the first film to feature Marlene Dietrich, she’s surprisingly not the lead. This movie belongs to Emil Jannings (who had just won an Oscar the year before taking this role ), whose staunch Professor Rath has to undergo a parade of humiliations as von Sternberg makes his point. The dignity that he has at the film’s start slowly fades into a sense of happiness, as it appears change might be possible and his credos wrong, then begins to shift again, wearing on him until he becomes a pathetic shell of the man that he was. Few films punish their leads to this extent simply for having a sense of moral conviction, but von Sternberg seems to think that the judgmental attitude that goes with Rath’s convictions makes him fair game for such attacks. It’s to Jannings’ credit that he never allows the Professor to become less than sympathetic. 

        Von Sternberg seems to be one of cinema’s most punishing figures. His sets have been obviously and meticulously lit, and the tales of the straits that he put his actors through to achieve his desired look are legendary.  In a more obvious and applicable sense, it’s almost as if he can’t be concerned with worrying about audience reaction if it doesn’t fit properly into his mise-en-scene.  That Dietrich is given an opportunity to sing a few crowd-pleasing songs feels almost accidental, since his focus seems to be on how well lit she is. There seems to be a constant struggle present in a von Sternberg film between the need of the actors to define their characters and the need of the director to define the actors, by making them his aesthetic objects. Von Sternberg seems far less concerned with filling our hearts than filling the frame, yet at the same time his movie becomes that much more effective, since we know the director is not putting us through an emotional wringer. 


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        Still, The Blue Angel manages to affect the audience emotionally. When Dietrich’s Lola Lola sings about her heartbreak, it manages to sum up feelings that might exactly not be her own (Lola Lola feels far too carefree to feel such things) but instead permeate throughout the entire film. There’s a perceptible feeling that the state of things should be better wafting around (after all, the film only offers sexual depravity as an alternative to its Puritanism), and the search for an impetus that will drive the film’s world out of its rigid stagnancy is unspoken but omnipresent. That Rath’s transgression doesn’t become that catalyst makes his fall from grace all the more depressing and The Blue Angel all the more resonant. 

* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman