While it was not Marlene Dietrich’s first film, The Blue Angel is undoubtedly most famous as the movie that launched her career and collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg. As such, it is one of a handful of films that owe their reputations less to their inherent qualities than to their historic significance. To stress the film’s historical importance is a little misleading, however, for much of the impact of the film derives from Dietrich’s persona.
Made in the early days of sound film, two versions, one in German, another in English, were shot simultaneously. While the German version is generally preferred, it is questionable whether continental audiences would have been impressed with the film’s frank depiction of sexual relations. In that regard, Angel’s much greater impact was probably on American tastes and expectations. Put a little too simply, Der Blaue Engel is a typically “German” film; The Blue Angel is a groundbreaking, door opening American movie.
What would have resonated with German audiences was to see a stuffy martinet like Prof. Rath (Emil Jannings) reduced to a wreck by impulses he could not control. Rath, a Gymnasium (college prep high school) instructor, is a lonely pedant debased by his passion for a night club singer, Lola Lola (Dietrich). Angel was in fact conceived as a vehicle for Jannings, who wanted von Sternberg to shepherd him through the actor’s first talkie. Attitudes toward Rath, a pompous authoritarian, exemplify the servility before officials that more than one historian has suggested was central to German acceptance of Hitler.* Just before Dietrich sings her signature tune, “Falling in Love Again,” for example, her troupe manager introduces Rath to the club audience with florid, exaggerated deference, as if the latter’s mere presence were an honor for all of them. (They react with raspberries.) To the extent Rath is as much a type as an individual, then, his decline would mean more for Germans than just the story (based on a novel by Heinrich Mann).
The film is nonetheless deeply ambiguous. Rath is unpleasant, but hardly deserves to sink to the depths he does. Lola is amoral and manipulative, but demonstrates real affection, or at least concern for Rath. Their relationship is doomed to disaster, but all too convincingly valuable for both characters.
At a time when hard core examples of every form of sexuality are available at the click of a mouse, Dietrich is still able to electrify any scene just by her presence. Jannings’s performance is impressive. Dietrich simply is, a shimmering icon of erotic promise. It is hardly worth discussing her acting ability. Her luminous face, throaty voice, confrontational attitude and easy, almost casual dominance obliterate such considerations. The Blue Angel may not have been her first film, but it certainly heralded a new sophistication for the movies, a sinuous, charged negotiation through the shoals of desire. It also puts to shame supposedly adult contemporary film.