Professor Immanuel Rath strictly enforces discipline in his high-school classroom. That is, until his curiosity leads him to his students’ hangout: The Blue Angel club. There he falls in love with and sleeps with performer Lola Lola, an ordinary city girl with an extraordinary penchant for attracting men. When he returns to school, Rath is mocked by his students and later fired for his conduct. Lola nevertheless embraces him, they get married, and Rath officially joins her traveling performance troupe. Years later, the troupe returns to The Blue Angel. Lola by this point has grown bored with Rath and begins an affair with the strongman Mazeppa. Meanwhile, the professor has stooped to dressing up like a clown and crowing before an audience for a living. When Rath crows before his jeering former students, however, he is so humiliated that he flees the stage, only to stumble upon Lola in Mazeppa’s arms. After feebly attempting to kill the strongman, he runs this time into the streets of his hometown and his old school. His final moments are spent in his former classroom, where he dies face down on his teacher’s desk.
Film stars rise and fall, their clout waxes and wanes. Yet few tales are as apodictic or even self-reflexive with regard to this power relationship as Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, a cautionary tale of a professor’s fall from grace. Though not a vampire film, this highly refined tragedy presents one of the most symbolic vampiric acts in the history of cinema: the draining of Emil Jannings’ career to feed those of Marlene Dietrich and Hans Albers. Performatively, this manifests in Dietrich consistently stealing the scene whenever she and the silent superstar Jannings appear together. Narratively, it manifests in Jannings’ overdetermined decline as Dietrich’s Lola Lola chooses the younger Mazeppa (Albers) over Jannings’ character, who dies in the end. In this fashion, The Blue Angel expertly encapsulates not only this portentous passing of one actor’s era, but also the latent media environment at the end of the Weimar Republic: the turbulent transition from silents to sound, the reckoning of the German film industry with Hollywood, the rise of the so-called ‘new woman’ and decline of male bourgeois respectability and wealth, as well as the triumph of mass art’s exteriority and fungibility over the interiority and inertia of the bourgeois intelligentsia. As a ‘classic’, it necessarily speaks to generations beyond those of its creation, but remains also deeply entrenched within the values and debates of its time.
At the end of the 1920s, the German film industry lacked serious leverage over Hollywood on both the domestic and global markets. An international hit was needed to balance the books after UFA’s recent bankruptcy. Whereas Hollywood usually wooed top talent away from Germany – Ernst Lubitsch being one famous example – veteran producer Erich Pommer moved to reverse the trend. He used Jannings, who had acting cachet in both Germany and the United States, to shoot a film in both German and English at once that would easily reach audiences across the Atlantic.1 Two separate language films were to be filmed with the same actors on the same sets, shot for shot. For his ideal director, Jannings picked von Sternberg, an Austrian-born American who last directed him in The Last Command (1928) and who came a lot cheaper than Fritz Lang. But upon arrival in Berlin-Potsdam, von Sternberg balked at the prospect of shooting the Rasputin biopic Jannings had in mind. They settled instead on a script that would tap into the actor’s previous masochistic roles in The Last Laugh (1924) and Varieté (1925): a heavily modified, more or less improvised version of Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat that put its titular figure into arguably more humiliating circumstances, as well as recast the semiinnocent Rosa Fröhlich of the novel as Lola Lola, the ‘heartless and immoral’ femme fatale. 2
To counterbalance Jannings’ tempestuous personality, von Sternberg cast Lola Lola with an unknown actress from the Berlin stage whom he knew he could control: Marie Magdalene DietrichSieber, aka. Marlene Dietrich. Her talent lay in her ability to manipulate her body and personality to conform to von Sternberg’s highly gendered fantasies.3 ‘She became a star who acted stardom’, writes James Naremore, or ‘a hybrid figure, oscillating incessantly between voyeurism and exhibitionism’, according to Elisabeth Bronfen.4 Vastly different from the well-educated and shy actress Dietrich-Sieber under the make-up, Lola Lola convincingly seduces Rath and the audience with her working girl matter-of-factness coupled with an otherworldly performative confidence. Advertisements for the film specifically highlighted the overdetermined tensions between the two characters.5 The combination worked: the original German and English prints of The Blue Angel ran to much success in international markets until the German version was banned under the Nazis in 1933 for its wilful degradation of an authority figure and the English version was heavily censored in the USA for its sexual content.6 Audiences came to see The Blue Angel not only for the duel between old warhorse Jannings and the fresh-faced Dietrich, but also for the way in which the dialogue, music, sound and even silent elements innovatively served to enhance the strange new version of Mann’s novel that von Sternberg was trying to tell.7
Patrice Petro has argued that The Blue Angel is an ‘unstable’ film poised curiously between the United States and Germany, ‘among the extremely rare instances of a non-U.S. film produced with the byline of a major Hollywood director’. 8 Indeed, von Sternberg’s usage of Otto Hunte’s expressionist sets and Günter Rittau’s foreboding shadows forms a strange admixture with the commercial melodrama of Hollywood. Lübeck, the real small town in which the film takes place, is an openly fictional locale within a dark fairy-tale Europe in which the schoolmasters are strict, the roofs dense, the streets labyrinthine, the clowns sad, and the women cold and merciless. Even the film’s title, The Blue Angel, the club in which Jannings and Lola Lola encounter each other, recalls the romantic ‘blue flowers’ of Novalis, the narrative itself more resembling a surreal Tieck story than the naturalism with modernist leanings of Mann’s novel. Rather than confront him with immediate privation or threatening circumstances, for example, the film initiates the plot with the death of Professor Rath’s bird. And when his housekeeper simply blithely throws its corpse into the roaring stove, it serves as a precursor to Lola Lola’s chilling but self-reflexive lyrics: ‘Men cluster to me/Like moths around a flame/And if their wings burn/I know I’m not to blame’. Von Sternberg establishes an atmosphere of decadence and brutality that lets viewers comfortably and voyeuristically enjoy the professor’s terrible decision to abandon a career over which he had little mastery (i. e. teaching) in favour of a career in which his pay is premised on his humiliation (i.e. being a clown and crowing like a rooster). No wonder Jerzy Toeplitz emphasised the film’s overall ‘political elasticity’, 9 given its insistence on the inefficacy of the bourgeois educational tradition on the one hand and the brutality of the commodity-exchange-based show-biz tradition that would replace it. As a film screened during the violent and poverty-stricken years before the Nazis took power, The Blue Angel’s ambiguity permitted it to avoid labels from one political camp or another. The space between nations in which the film resides gives it an alibi for each and every one of the myriad of political allegories to be found within its narrative, whether they be about the corruption of the old order, the power of the symbolic over the Real, the mastery of the subject by the objects one beholds, and so forth.