When viewed today, The Blue Angel still resonates in surprising ways. Adolescent boys, still seen as an unruly element of society, are disciplined not so much by their teachers but by the pleasures of circulating image systems – films, comics, games – and the unwritten conformism that commodity exchange demands. The students might themselves be unwitting bearers of reactionary behaviours, as evidenced by the continuous bullying of Angst without Unrath’s intervention, but they are in turn brought into the fold via the suggestive properties of the entertainment industry. Those like Professor Rath who, for whatever self-therapeutic reason, would mistake images for reality are clearly fools, but the Freudian disciplines of public relations and image control nevertheless effectively manage the public’s acceptance of unpleasant facts and diffusion of blame. One cannot survive in such a libidinal economy without mastery over one’s libido; nevertheless, none of us truly has survived unscathed either. The haunting image of a disgraced academic who dies clutching his desk after a disastrous mid-career change eerily invokes the personal upheavals and sacrifices necessary to exist in a neo-liberal job market, and how some simply cannot survive. Rather than interpret The Blue Angel along the lines of Rath and Lola’s individual psychological dispositions (as well as that of von Sternberg), one might also see the film as a cautionary parable for humanity in a modern urban economy: one must learn to ‘fall in love again’ – to instrumentally adjust one’s emotional commitments to fit unstable economic times and demeaning jobs – lest one follows one’s principles to pauperdom and the grave. ‘Romantic love, in other words, is an ideal that belongs to a previous stage of capitalist development, one that favored the creation of strong, altruistic family units’, says Stephen Brockmann, whereas ‘contemporary capitalism, in contrast, is based on selfishness rather than love’. 10 Von Sternberg’s script, Dietrich’s performance, Hunte’s sets, and so forth may be rightfully considered products of pure artifice. Nevertheless, it is an artifice deeply entrenched in the core dilemmas of all artistic and intellectual endeavour during a selfish capitalist age.
1. Some significant debate ensued as to whether or not Jannings’ English would be up for the task of shooting two language versions, as well as the costs and benefits of Janning’s difficult temperament vs. his ability to pull in box office sales abroad. See Chris Wahl, ‘Babel’s Business – On Ufa’s Multiple Language Film Versions, 1929–1933’, in Christian Rogowski (ed.), The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema, New York, Camden House, 2010, p. 238.
2. These are Josef von Sternberg’s own words. He by all rights deliberately crafted the part to be a perfectly cynical figure to ‘show the downfall of an enamoured man à la Human Bondage’. Josef von Sternberg, The Blue Angel, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1968, p. 11.
3. These fantasies were partially thanks to a burgeoning romance between the two of them. Dietrich and von Sternberg became so close on the production that, upon their arrival in New York City, von Sternberg’s wife filed for divorce.
4. James Naremore, ‘Marlene Dietrich’, in Senses of Cinema, 2000, http://sensesofcinema.com/ 2000/cteq/dietrich/; Elisabeth Bronfen, ‘Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in The Blue Angel’, in Gerd Gemünden and Mary Desjardins (eds), Dietrich Icon, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 138.
5. See for example the Illustrierter Film-Kurier, No. 1381, 1930.
6. Klaus Kreimeier, The Ufa Story – A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1999, p. 192.
7. See Hans Wollenberg, ‘Der blaue Engel’, in Lichtbild-Bühne, No. 79. April 2, 1980.
8. Patrice Petro, ‘National Cinemas/International Film Culture: The Blue Angel (1930) in Multiple Language Versions’, in Noah Isenberg (ed.), Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, New York, Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 259.
9. Jerzy Toeplitz, Geschichte des Films, Band 2: 1928–1933, Berlin, Henschel Verlag, 1992, p. 733.
10.Stephen Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film, Rochester, NY, Camden House, 2010, p. 108.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: Universum Film (UFA). Director: Josef von Sternberg. Producer: Erich Pommer. Screenwriters: Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, Robert Liebmann, Josef von Sternberg, Heinrich Mann. Cinematographers: Günter Rittau, Hans Schneeberger. 94 Der blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (1930) Music: Friedrich Holländer. Editors: Walter Klee, Sam Winston. Cast: Emil Jannings (Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (Kiepert), Rosa Valetti (Guste), Hans Albers (Mazeppa), Reinhold Bernt (The Clown), Eduard von Winterstein (The School Director).]
John Baxter, The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, London, A.S. Barnes, 1971.
Michel Bouvier, ‘Hollywood on Spree’, Ça cinéma 18, 1978, pp. 19–35.
Gertrud Koch, ‘Between Two Worlds: Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel’, in Eric Rentschler (ed.), German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, New York and London, Methuen, 1986, pp. 60–72.
Barbara Kosta, Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich, and Mass Culture, New York, Berghahn Books, 2010.
Alan Lareau, ‘Lavender Songs: Undermining Gender in Weimar Cabaret and Beyond’, in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 28, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 15–33.
Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat, oder Das Ende eines Tyrannen, Munich, A. Langen, 1905.
Judith Mayne, ‘Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel, and Female Performance’, in Dianne Hunter (ed.), Seduction and Theory: Readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric, Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 28–46.
S. S. Prawer, The Blue Angel, London, BFI, 2002.
Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
Gaylyn Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic, Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.