Notes on film: The Blue Angel

“A little flirting is alright but always remember she’s a predator.”

The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) is one of Germany’s most significant films. It is reportedly the first German sound film and when it was made the filmmakers simultaneously made a (superior) German language version and an English language version. It was made towards the end of the Weimar Republic period (1919-1933) and contains many of the characteristics of German Expressionism, a style that dominated the era, in particular the fantasy, horror and science fiction films. But most significantly, The Blue Angel was the first film that director Josef von Sternberg worked on with Marlene Dietrich. Their pairing is still regarded as one of the all time great director/actor collaborations in film history. Together they created Dietrich’s unique star persona, a mixture of masculinity and femininity, sensuality and stylised camp.

The Weimar Republic is the name given to the democratic and republican period in Germany between the post-World War I German Revolution in 1919 and the Nazi rise to power in 1933. The economic hardship and extremely low morale of the period was reflected in the German Expressionist art movement. In cinematic terms this resulted in a strikingly stylistic use of shadows, shards of light and angular architecture that represented the world as a dark and alienating place that had the power to send you insane. The Blue Angel captures the sinister undercurrents of German Expressionism. The opening shot of the film over the dramatically angled rooftops is classic German Expressionism as are the various shots of streets and buildings. The scene where the shadow of the school bullies leer over the sleeping figure of their victim could have come straight out of an Expressionist horror classic such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) or Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922).

Nevertheless the Weimar Republic was also a period of great cultural revival and innovation. Jazz, modern art, the Bauhaus school of design, and theatre thrived and the era also saw the rise of the cabaret, more relaxed attitudes to sexuality and a degree of emancipation for women. The Blue Angel club, from which the film derives its title, is the setting within the film for this aspect of Weimar Republic life. It is a place of sex, seduction, voyeurism, drinking and foreign otherness in the guise of exotic music and even a bear that appears in one scene being led through the changing room. But of course, the major aspect of The Blue Angel club’s wild seductiveness is Lola Lola played by Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role.

Lola Lola and Professor Immanuel Rath (played by silent film veteran Emil Jannings) represent the classic dichotomy of the seductive female and the hapless male. It is a theme that had been explored the previous year in another classic Weimar Republic film Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929) but it dates back to biblical, classical and oriental mythology. The vampish woman (Lola Lola) is a force of powerful sexuality, which is aligned with the deadly forces of nature (her animal print costumes and the exoticness of The Blue Angel club) and otherness. Professor Immanuel Rath is the lonely and sympathetic male aligned with civilisation (he is a respected teacher) who falls prey to her untamed femininity.  Although by today’s standards the symbolism is inappropriate, the scene where Rath wakes up with a black doll represents the dark and mysterious foreignness of Lola Lola that is alluring yet ultimately dangerous and unattainable. Dietrich’s portrayal of Lola Lola would be extremely influential in the creation of the femme fatale personae that dominated the Hollywood film noir cycle of films.

The key to the strange power wielded by Lola Lola is due to the extraordinary sexuality that Sternberg gives to Dietrich. Lola Lola’s performances are a mixture of stylised seduction but are also highly camp. She embodies both masculine and feminine traits in the way she dresses, moves and speaks. She may sit on stage dressed in frilly underwear and gaze lovingly up at Rath, but she is also wearing a top hat and crosses her legs like man. She moves seamlessly from being a passive object of desire to a sexually confident aggressor, and is sometimes both simultaneously.

The first time the audience see Lola Lola is on the postcard that Rath has confiscated from his students. Rath blows up a piece of cloth pasted onto the card to conceal her crotch and the moment is one of pure male objectification. However this scene then cuts to Lola on stage where she is shot from a low angel, making her appear to tower over the audience. Hands defiantly on hips she sings through a sneer only pausing to take a beer off another women. She is completely in control of her domain and her body. Her sexuality is a weapon and she uses it against Rath to unsettle him. In a later scene when Rath is under the table looking for the dropped cigarettes, the audience may get a very voyeuristic shot of Lola Lola’s legs but Rath is the one looking flustered and embarrassed while Lola Lola teases him.

After The Blue Angel Sternberg and Dietrich would relocate to the USA to continue working together for 5 more years, making 6 more films – Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Dietrich’s personae as a sex symbol for both men and women, straight and gay, would be cemented in a scene in Morocco where she performs dressed in a man’s tuxedo, during which she pauses to kiss another woman. However, the famous director/actor partnership began in The Blue Angel and the image of Dietrich sitting on a beer barrel, one leg raised in the air, drolly singing “Falling in Love Again” defines Dietrich’s image as a complex sexual figure. 

Originally appeared in the film notes for the Region 4 DVD box set A Beginner’s Guide to Cinema 2, released by Madman Entertainment

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008
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