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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.
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.
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