Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel is one of the most provocative, risqué and taboo-sexual oriented German films of the early 30s. Not only is the film known for being the first major German sound film but also the film that brought the beautiful and legendary actress Marlene Dietrich into international stardom. The Blue Angel portrays all the formulas that made up most popular German films of the early 30's which included nightclubs, champagne, cabaret dancers, sex, and perversion; and yet The Blue Angel includes much deeper themes of sadness, shame, loss and humiliation. The Blue Angel was made in 1929 right near the beginning of the sound era and so the film was used as a vehicle for the great silent actor Emil Jannings, who won the previous Academy Award for The Last Command. Emil Jannings is most famous for the German Expressionism films of the silent era most notably F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, where he plays an aging doorman who has been suddenly demoted because of his age, and his character has to learn to cope with the shame of losing his respected position from his friends and family. The Blue Angel involves a slightly similar character named Immanuel Rath, who is a sexually repressed professor who becomes deeply infatuated with a local cabaret dancer named Lola-Lola. Marlene Dietrich's character Lola-Lola is the iconic femme-fatale, a sadomasochist gold-digger that seems to embody the exciting characteristics all men fantasize and lust about, but would never want to have. She is a manipulative and seductive predator who tends to jump from partner to partner to only fulfill her personal needs and sexual desires. Immanuel Rath is one of many men who gets sexually infatuated with Lola-Lola, naïvely getting caught under her seductive spell, and soon enough he is lost. The Blue Angel broke several new taboos for its time and yet the story itself is still as timeless as ever, portraying the tragic downfall of a respected and distinguished professor, and of his shameless transformation into a pathetic cabaret clown, which ultimately descents him into madness.
The opening shot of the film shows a small village in Weimar Germany awaken for the morning as Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) an esteemed educator at the local college preparatory high school wakes up from his sleep for breakfast that his servant has made for him. He pours some morning coffee and whistles at his bird who he realizes when up close is dead. Before the prof. heads to the university his students are already in his classroom hovering around one student who has postcards of a sexy cabaret dancer he saw the other night at a nightclub. Another students writes professor Garbage and draws a picture on professor Raths belongings on his desk. When the school bell rings the students all quickly take their seats when professor Rath arrives to class and gets situated. After blowing his nose the professor realizes what has been drawn on his belongings and he calls out a student named Angst to the front of the class to wipe it up. After teaching his class a day of Hamlet and an English article of 'To Be or Not to Be' the bell rings and the students begin to leave.
While one of the students is making his way out of the school, two students patiently wait outside and trip him causing him to spill the erotic postcards that he earlier was showing the class. The prof sees this and calls the student inside and sits him down and tells the student that he is ashamed of him because he is considered his best student. The professor asks the student where he obtained the scandalous post cards of this so-called dancer named Lola-Lola and the student starts to cry saying, "they all hate me because I don't go with them at night." When the professor asks him where the other students go he is told they go up to The Blue Angel. "Where?" The professor asks. "The Blue Angel?" The professor orders the student to go home as the professor looks through all the postcards of this Lola-Lola dancer and he realizes he can blow the center one which seems to be a skirt like fabric attached to the picture of Lola.
The next scene is inside The Blue Angel as the main dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is up on stage singing, "they call me Naughty Lola, I'm known far and wide. I have a pianola that is my joy and pride. They call me naughty Lola, the men all go for me. But I don't let any man lay a paw on my keys." After her performance Lola takes a seat to have a sip of beer as professor Rath is outside trying to look for the The Blue Angel and to find this Lola and confront her and the source of this indecency. When the professor finally finds the place he makes his way in and sees one of his students and the student quickly takes off while the professor runs around the club and into the back dressing rooms to find him distracting other performers of the troupe.
Lola accidentally runs into the professor within the back dressing room and says, "well, well, what are you doing in my bedroom?" The professor says, "I presume you are...the artiste Lola-Lola." She asks if he is a cop and he says he is Dr Immanuel Rath professor at the local college. Lola asks what he wants and he tells her he's on official business saying, "you're corrupting my pupils." She laughs and says, "think I run a kindergarten?" She then starts to undress in front of the professor which makes him greatly uncomfortable. "What's wrong?" she asks him. "Cat got your tongue?" The professor tells Lola that he cannot stay here because of her reputation and she says, "If you're on your best behavior, you may stay." The professor starts to sweat nervously when she drops her dress and when another dancer of the troupe walks in and sees this she says to him, "naughty, naughty. I don't want you starting any trouble." The professor embarrassed takes a seat and when Lola walks up stairs to change she soon returns in a new sexy outfit and asks the professor how her new look is.
The manager and magician of the troupe named Kiepert walks into the room and introduces himself to the professor and says, "I'm delighted to welcome a local dignitary into our midst." Kiepert believes the professor is their not on business but for entertainment and Lola leaves to go onstage for a show. Kiepert tells the professor he has impeccable taste going after Lola and when the professor gets offended Kiepert says, "no need to get upset, we're both men." The professor yells angrily that he is not there for her but because of the bad influence his club The Blue Angel is on his pupils. When he finally sees the student he was earlier trying to catch he chases him outside and into the alley but loses him.
During that night, the one student who squealed to the professor on the location of The Blue Angel gets a surprise beating from his other peers for opening his mouth. The professor leaves The Blue Angel and goes back to his home to relax but he realizes he grabbed a piece of Lola's panties instead of taking his hat before leaving. (Which was purposely smuggled into his coat by his student.) Days later the professor returns to The Blue Angel while some of his students are already there talking to Lola. When the pupils see the Professor coming they are told to hide in a secret compartment underneath the floor. The professor makes his way in back to meet Lola. Lola sees him and says, "I knew you'd come back. They all come back for me."
The professor apologizes about the other day and of his rude behavior and wants to give back her panties which he believes he mistakenly took, in exchange for his hat. Lola tells the prof since he came all the way there to relax and remove his coat. She flirts with the professor and playfully teases him while she puts on some make-up while his pupils are secretly watching from under the floor. The prof even helps Lola in applying some of her makeup on and when he nervously drops the makeup container under the table he goes down below to grab it but not before being infatuated with Lola's legs. Lola teases while he's under there saying , "hey Professor, send me a postcard sometime." Lola then starts to baby the prof by combing his hair and making him blush with compliments. Lola says to him, "if your boys could see you now!"
Suddenly Kiepert comes in demanding Lola to start drinking because of a sailor who is loaded with cash. Lola tells Kiepert that she is an artist not a prostitute. Kiepert says, "You must drink. I'm not paying for your art." When the sailor comes in to drink with Lola he starts to inappropriately fondle her and the professor defends her honor by shouting, "you miserable villain! Get out! How dare you molest the baby!" The sailor jokingly asks Lola if this elderly man is her daddy, and the professor psychically throws him out calling him a white slave trader. Kiepert even gets involved but the professor smacks him calling him a miserable pimp. The sailor goes out to get a police officer accusing the prof of assaulting him and Lola is astonished by the professor's behavior saying, "Someone defending me? Hasn't happened in ages."
She proposes a drink for the two of them but a police officer arrives because of the sailors complaint and so Lola orders the professor to hide down in the underground compartment in the floor so he isn't seen by the officer. The plan doesn't work very well when the professor realizes his students are also hiding down there and he angrily breaks his silence by grabbing his students and psychically kicking them out of The Blue Angel. The police officer realizes the absurdity of the situation and ignores the charges and leaves while the prof. is asked by Kiepert to sit down and calm his nerves. Kiepert offers the prof. a drink of champagne and a seat out in front on the balcony to watch Lola and his troupe perform on stage. When the prof. is seated Kiepert announces the prof. as a guest of honor for the night, as most of the audience can care less. When the professor sees Lola sing he has a pleasant smile on his face and greatly enjoys the entertainment, drinks and watching Lola.
The next morning the professor's maid comes into the professors room to wake him up for breakfast and realizes that he is not in his bed. The professor spent the night with Lola at the Blue Angel waking up to her while she is there making him coffee and breakfast. The professor believes he may have overindulged the other night while Lola pours him some coffee and Lola says that he should deserve this every morning, with the professor agreeing because he isn't married. The professor suddenly realizes he must get to the college but before he leaves Lola kisses him and shocks him by asking if he loves her.
While heading to the college one of his students is in the classroom drawing a picture of a love-sick professor and Lola-Lola on the chalkboard. When the professor arrives he sees the drawing on the board and a student yells out, "Professor, it stinks here of garbage!" The students all shout out and mock him chanting while other faculty members walk up to the classroom curious on what all the noise is about. The dean comes in and excuses the students as he has a private discussion with the professor looking at the drawing on the board. The dean says, "not without talent. There's a lot I can understand. But to risk one's entire future for that kind of woman?" The professor gets offended by the deans comments and says, "you are speaking of my future wife." The dean can't believe the professor is serious, but the professor says he is and will not hear another word. The dean turns to leave but says, "I'm very sorry, my dear fellow, but I'll have to report the matter." After the dean leaves the professor stands in complete silence within his empty classroom now completely consumed with desire for Lola.
The next day the professor returns to The Blue Angel with flowers for Lola and is surprised to see Lola and the rest of the troupe leaving The Blue Angel and going to perform their magic act on the road. Lola gladly takes the flowers and says she will be back the next year but is stunned when the professor offers her a wedding ring. "And at the same time may I ask for your hand?" he asks. "You want to marry me?" she asks him. She suddenly starts to laugh at him and says, "my God you are sweet!" The professor is serious with his statements saying, "I hope, my child, you are fully aware of the gravity of this moment." He embraces her and they both kiss and subsequently the prof. resigns from his position at the academy to marry Lola and the two get married.
Kiepert and the rest of the troupe celebrate after the wedding making grand speeches for the two of them and present them with a few magic tricks of their own. But their marriage and happiness is short-lived, as they soon fritter away the prof. meager savings and he eventually is forced to take a position as a clown in Lola's cabaret troupe to pay the bills. His growing insecurities about Lola's profession as a shared woman eventually consume him with lust and jealousy and the prof. also starts to drink more, and not take care of himself.
After a showing the bitter and unhappy prof. calls the clients they have ignorant. Kiepert is tired of the professor's behavior and says, "you need a shave, just look at you! Who'd buy a postcard from you? Go ahead and stare. You're not at the college now." Lola agrees with Kiepert telling her husband "what's the idea calling them ignorant.? We make a living off them. If you don't like it...go." The professor gets furious and shouts, "I'd rather die like a dog than lead this life another day." And yet the professor knows that he doesn't have any where to go and he decides to stay with Lola and the rest of the troupe for several more years.
In the climax of the film, years now past with the professor, Lola and the whole troupe on the road performing shows. One day Kiepert announces to the troupe that they are going back to perform at The Blue Angel but the professor says he is not going back to his hometown because of his shame. Kiepert says, "Isn't that just like you? You've lived off this woman for five years. And now when you finally can earn a few cents...the professor says, I won't go!" The troupe eventually returns to his hometown and to The Blue Angel. While they are moving their things inside The Blue Angel a maestro is moving himself out but not before he introduces himself to Lola in front of her husband. "Allow me to introduce myself. Hans Adalbert Mazeppa, strong man.Whenever I spy a beautiful dame, I move in. That's my trademark." Lola tells him not to rush so much because they both will have plenty of time as she goes in back to get ready for the show.
Kiepert is told that the Blue Angel is sold out and even the Mayor has arrived. The professor feels ridiculed being dressed up as a clown and about to perform in front of the very people he used to deride. Lola asks him what the long face is for while he watches Mazeppa and her flirting with one another. She tells her husband, "Every time I have some fun, you sit there moping. What are you waiting for? Go do your little show." Lola then decides to go upstairs and have some personal alone time alone with Mazeppa. Kiepert goes out on stage and introduces the professor to the audience saying, "I'd like to introduce to you a man you all know for his long and remarkable pedagogical achievements...at the local college." The people in the audience already know who Kiepert is talking about as they all shout out for professor Immanuel Rath, ridiculing him and berating him.
The professor walks on stage in a sort of daze as the audience and people who used to respect him now taunt and laugh at him as a stooge of a magician who now produces eggs from his nose and cracks them on his head. When Kiepert orders the prof. to crow like a bird the prof. notices his wife in the back of the stage embracing and kissing her new love interest Mazeppa, and the professor completely snaps enraged to the point of insanity. He runs off stage making crow like sounds and attempts to strangle Lola, but is beaten down by the other members of the troupe and locked in a straitjacket. That evening after the show Kiepert walks in and tells the professor, "I don't get it, an educated man like you...all for a dame."
Later that evening during one of Lola's songs the professor gets up, grabs his coat and finally decides to leave The Blue Angel. The professor makes his way down the street and to the college where he was once a respected and distinguished professor. He rings the bell and when no one answers he walks inside and into the classroom he once taught in and suddenly collapses onto the teacher's desk . Rejected, humiliated, and destitute, he dies in remorse, clenching the desk tightly. A security guard comes into the classroom to find the professor sprawled out dead on the desk with the professors grip not letting go of the desk that he once sat in; the desk he once proudly taught in.
Much of the style that Faust embodied was of German Expressionism, which was one of many creative styles and movements that came out of Germany after their defeat in World War I. UFA studios which was Germany's principal film studio at that time, decided for the film industry to go private which largely confined Germany and isolated the country from the rest of the world. In 1916, the government had banned any foreign films in the nation, and so the demand from theaters to generate films led to the rise of film production from 24 films released in 1914 to a high 130 films in 1918.
German Expressionism and its aesthetics was first derived from German Romanticism and of architecture, painting, and of the stage, most famously from German set designers Herman Warm, Walter Rorhig, and Walter Reimann. Much of German Expressionism's style and design expressed interior realities via exterior realities and emotionalism rather than objectivity or realism. Many films of German Expressionism used bizarre set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The world that characters inhabit in a German Expressionism film are full of exaggerated landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, angles, shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter, jagged and many of the props seem to be geometrically off-balance. This unusual visual look is intentional off course to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism. It's unsettling sets of instability gives the feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The actor's in German Expressionism films usually wear heavy make-up, their acting is greatly exaggerated and their movements are jerky and unnatural to blend in with the stylistic and abstract environment. German Expressionistic's odd and distorted style are as unrealistic as the dilution of its main character who's narrative is a good contrast to its style as it revolves around such themes as psychology, fantasy, madness, betrayal and murder as its creators used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than realism or what was on the surface. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include several of Fritz Lang's silent films most importantly Metropolis and M. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel are also considered landmarks of German Expressionism, with some critics looking at the aesthetics of German Expressionism as the early beginnings of American film-noir.
Josef Von Sternberg called the story of The Blue Angel "the downfall of an enamored man", and calls the character of professor Rath "a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low." Some critics saw the film as an allegory for pre-war Germany, but von Sternberg was very clear that he did not intend to make a political stand saying, "The year was 1929, Germany was undivided, although the real Germany, its schools and other places pictured in the film were not German and reality failed to interest me". Emil Jannings had asked Sternberg to direct him in his first sound picture, although Sternberg and Jannings had clashed on the set of their previous collaboration The Last Command and von Sternberg had vowed never to work with the actor again. The following year, however, he and Jannings reconciled and, at the invitation of Erich Pommer, head of UFA, they began to collaborate on a film about Rasputin. Sternberg was less than intrigued by this prospect, however, and as an alternative he suggested the idea of an adaptation of the Heinrich Mann story Professor Unrat, a 1905 satire about the hypocrisy of the German middle-class. Sternberg restructured the story to fit his tastes; simplifying moral themes and emphasizing the anguish of the teacher. As a result the second half of the book was not used at all for The Blue Angel, and the film's ending is entirely new.
The Blue Angel is best known for introducing Marlene Dietrich to worldwide attention, although other performers were initially considered for the role. Dietrich's portrayal of an uninhibited woman not only established her stardom, but also established a modern embodiment of a vixen. Lola-Lola's lusty songs, written by Friedrich Hollaender who did the music and Robert Liebmann who wrote the lyrics slither their way into the professor's heart, entrapping him and sealing his fate. The story's melancholic simplicity adds to the beauty of von Sternberg's most remembered work, in both Germany and America. Dietrich's radiant sensuality might be blamed for the censorship the film faced in Pasadena, California. C.V. Cowan, censor for Pasadena, found many scenes offensive and chose to cut them, though Jason Joy, the nation's censor, did not. Reaction to the censor's seal for the re-cut film was not good, and the theater removed the censorship statement. During filming, although he was still the nominal star of the film, Jannings could see the growing closeness between von Sternberg and Dietrich, and the care the director took in presenting her, and the actor became jealous, threatening to strangle the actress and misbehaved on the set.
The Blue Angel was to be Jannings last great cinematic moment; it was also one of UFA's last great films, as many of the studio's major talents left Germany for Hollywood, including von Sternberg and Dietrich, who were met on the dock in New York City by von Sternberg's wife, who served legal papers on Dietrich for 'alienation of affection' and which Von Sternberg and his wife divorced shortly afterwards. Josef Von Sternberg, was a very highly respected director in Europe and America and much of his films were greatly influenced by the style of German Expressionism, most obviously in the bizarre buildings and city shots in The Blue Angel where many of the obscure angles of the architecture are geomentrically off-kilter and distorted, reminding me of the style presented in the silent German Expressionnism classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The shots of the dressing room scenes within The Blue Angel interiors are designed very crypt and claustrophobic, as it feels hidden from the public and the rest of the world. Sternberg was a visual artist who liked bold shots where the actors shared space with foreground props, and dramatic shadows and light, constructing the dressing room beneath the stage of the Blue Angel nightclub into a haunting psychic dungeon.
Sternberg was also one of the few silent directors who made a smooth and successful transition from silent to sound films. Lotte Eisner observes in The Haunted Screen, her study of German expressionism, that von Sternberg was more at ease with sound than many of his contemporaries (this was his second talkie), and was perhaps the first director to deal with how offstage sounds alter as doors are opened and closed. Sound itself was seen as self-sufficient in the earlier days, but von Sternberg was already modulating it, tilting it toward realism. Some of Sternberg's best silent films were The Last Command in 1928 which had Jannings win the Academy Award and The Docks of New York which tells the story of a blue-collar worker on New York's waterfront; and how he saves a womans life from an attempted suicide and how it greatly impacts his life. One of his masterpieces besides The Blue Angel is his other sound film Scarlett Empress in 1934. Marlene Dietrich plays a young princess of Germany who is taken to Russia to marry a Grand Duke. The film is most famous for its attentive gothic lighting of candles, abstract, exaggerated composition shots and the expressionist art design of distorted gargoyles, and several grotesque statues.
The making of The Blue Angel in 1929 was still at a time where most audiences were not used to subtitles and would much easily have accepted dubbing. At a time where studios and films knew no language barriers it was normal for filmmakers and distributors to shoot the film in multiple languages because it was easier to promote and sell the film internationally. The Blue Angel was shot in German and English and because both versions of the film were shot simultaneously, the actors were required to do every scene twice which was not unusual in the early sound era, given the technical difficulty of dubbing. Marlene Dietrich's performance in The Blue Angel created an overnight sensation and brought her into sudden popularity becoming a sex symbol for men around the world. Because of this the filmmakers were inspired to recut the American ending of the film; and end it with just one of her songs to make the ending much less bleak for American audiences. Because of this useless change, the American version has always been vastly inferior to the original German version. The 2 disc Kino DVD release gives a now restored version of both the original German release, and the alternative English version; so now you can choose to watch either endings. The German version will always be the better version of von Sternberg's masterpiece on how it portrays the devastating downfall of a once distinguished man, giving the story a much more timeless and everlasting power. I always questioned why Lola decided to marry the sad and desperate professor and I came to the conclusion that she probably was fond of him and had some form of sweet affection towards him. I also believe it was because he was one of the few men in her life who regarded her less as a tramp or a prostitute and more as a human being. There are times in which she seems to care for the professor's feelings and then the next minute she can coldly be indifferent to them by being openly unfaithful. Marlene Dietrich's character Lola seems to embody the woman all men fantasize about but would never want to have. She is a manipulative and seductive sexual predator who tends to jump from partner to partner to only fulfill her sexual needs. The final humiliation of the professor is agonizing and tragic, and yet Siegfried Krakauer, in his study From Caligari to Hitler, found it as another example of the way German movies mirrored their society in humiliating intellectuals and glorifying the physical through domination, control and power. You can glimpse Lola-Lola as she reflects the sadomasochism of the Nazi pose and the strange sexual relationship between her and Professor Rath, and how she clearly dominates and controls their sexual relationship. The song that Lola-Lola sings at the climax of the film sums of her character perfectly and how she embodies the perfect all-dominant female sexual creäture; a dangerous woman who can naturally move from one male victim to another, always feeling completely indifferent about it.
"Falling in love again...never wanted to...What's a girl do to do? I can't help it...What choice do I have? That's the way I'm made...Love is all I know... I can't help it... Men swarm around me like moths round a flame... And if their wings are singed, surely I can't be blamed...Falling in love again...Never wanted to... What's a girl to do? I can't help it..."