I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking up the merits of silent films on this slip of digital parchment. The early era of the talkie film was littered with quick productions that used sound in very rudimentary ways, as a gimmick, nothing more. Directors were mostly unsure of how to utilize sound to its fullest, and in all fairness many of today’s directors still haven’t figured it out. So it is incredibly rare to find a talkie from 1930 that is so highly polished and expertly conceived as The Blue Angel. Please do yourself a favor and watch the German language version of the film. It is complete and the actors, who have been used to not talking AT ALL in films, struggle greatly with English especially Jannings.
Director Joseph Von Sternberg, a name I will look for in the future, has put together a flawed masterpiece here. A professor at a local university (Emil Jannings) begins noticing his students obsession with a dancer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) at a local club called The Blue Angel. His frustration reaches a point where he goes down to the club to request that the singer not see the young men anymore. Whatever ideas he had when he went into the bar evaporated when he laid eyes on Lola. She flirts with the older bachelor and charms him easily. Soon the professor is a regular at the club, much to the delight of his students who enjoy taunting him for being so hypocritical. Professor Rath becomes infatuated with Lola and ends up losing his position at the school and joining the dancer in marriage. Unfortunately, his life begins a tragic downward spiral at this point.
Emil Jannings won the very first Oscar for Best Actor, but it absolutely blows my mind that he didn’t get one for his unbelievable performance in this film. After Professor Rath loses his position at the university he is forced to stay with Lola and travel with her as she goes from night club to night club all over Europe. He is reduced to selling pin ups and postcards that feature pictures of his wife to make what money he can. When that turns up very little, and he is completely devastated at the wreck that his professional career has become, he begins performing in a sideshow as a clown. Eventually the company makes his way back to his home town, where it is being advertised that the distiguished Professor Rath will perform. With the prospect of all his former colleagues and students seeing him in such a state, Rath sinks into a deep depression.
Lola Lola on the other hand is carrying on with her singing and dancing like she always did. I believe she really did enjoy Rath’s company but over the course of travel she began to get bored with him. She sought other companionship, sometimes fellow performers other times customers. Dietrich is perfect as the star siren, luring men in with her sweet voice. Rath certainly was not the first to fall victim to this. Throughout the first segment of the film when Rath is just becoming acquainted with Lola, this sad clown is seen roaming around the back dressing rooms. He occasionally stares at Lola or Rath or the camera, never uttering a word. I think Von Sternberg used the clown to foreshadow Rath’s slow descent into depression and eventual madness. Later in the film Rath reacts in the same silently comatose way to other characters that the nameless clown does. Lost in his own sorrow, knowing that nothing he can say will change anything. Resigning yourself to fate is rarely a joyous event.
The scene in which Rath actually is pushed out on stage in his hometown is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I have ever watched. He is petrified and dumbstruck at his predicament. Through the entire film he has maintained his pride despite losing his position in life and watching the woman he loves enjoy the company of other men. Now that is being completely stripped from by the laughter and cackles of his former students and the sympathetic disbelief of his former co-workers. He simply cracks. Completely losing it on stage as another performer is deeply kissing his wife just behind the curtain. The screams that come out of him will haunt me forever. This is not a horror film by any means, but its terrifying to witness Rath’s mental breakdown as he tears from the stage like a wild animal.
I watch a lot of films (shocking I know) and after seeing so many, when a film finally does get to me emotionally and stays with me for more than a day, I know I’ve seen something really special. This film deserves 100x more attention than it has received. The Blue Angel is one of the all time greats as far as I’m concerned.