September 3, 2002 -- "The Blue Angel" (German title "Der Blaue Engel") represents a lot of firsts, the first starring role for the legendary Marlene Dietrich, the first movie with sound made in Germany, and the first big hit for director Josef von Sternberg.
Though the film is hopelessly dated by today's standards, it does contain two powerful performances. One by Dietrich, and the other by Emil Jannings, a major German film star. Jannings plays Professor Immanuel Rath, a high school teacher who falls hopelessly in love with a Cabaret girl working under the stage name of Lola Lola (Dietrich). Rath is destroyed by his blind love for Lola. The once-proud man descends into a spiral of despair, culminating with the final indignity of performing as a clown on stage in front of his friends and former students. The once highly respected teacher becomes a laughingstock, humiliated and broken.
Dietrich is amazing as the Bohemian cabaret girl. She accepts Rath's love, but does not reciprocate it. She marries him, but remains unchanged by either Rath's love or the marriage. She is happy in her nomadic life as a wandering stage performer, but that same life causes Rath to wither like a plant without water. This is another in a long series of films about tragedies that befall people who marry outside their class, like "My Fair Lady." This old-fashioned xenophobic philosophy is closely tied to such notions as nationalism and bigotry, a way to categorize and separate people. This film is the exact opposite of another cinematic classic, "Goodbye, Mister Chips," about another school teacher who also marries a cabaret singer, but is transformed into a better man by the woman's love. Modern films are more likely to minimize class distinctions in romance rather than accentuate them, as this film does.
Even though the film is about class distinctions, it is also about contrasting temperaments. Lola is a classic example of the Bohemian artistic type, essentially amoral and following a highly unstructured existence. Rath is the opposite. He is morally rigid and his entire life is based on a strict sense of order. He has a nice, safe job and is well-respected in his community. The only trouble is, that he is also a very lonely man, ripe for a romantic fall when confronted by the great beauty of Lola. He mistakes her beauty for virtue. He throws away his safe existence to follow Lola into an uncertain future. Lola is not evil, she is simply indifferent to Rath's plight, blissfully unconcerned with his pain. A man with the right kind of artistic temperament could have flourished in the same lifestyle which destroyed Rath.
The film uses a nice bit of foreshadowing in the person of the rather sad looking clown who appears often early in the film. The clown later disappears in the film, and is replaced by an even sadder clown, Rath. Jannings' performance as Rath is powerful. Great quantities of despair and rage build up inside of him. His explosion of humiliation, rage, desperation and despair at the end of the film is stunning. The only problem is, it seems to take forever to get to that climax because of the film's plodding pace. Dietrich's performance is finely nuanced. She shows both attraction and indifference to Rath, as well as amusement. To her, Rath is a kind of plaything, not to be taken seriously. Rath might also represent a chance for Lola to get back at the social class that Rath represents, a social class which happens to despise her. Rath's despair might make Lola feel superior. Typical is her amusement with Rath's marriage proposal. Marriage is one of the many things Lola doesn't take seriously, an attitude which has always prevailed in Hollywood. "The Blue Angel" is a dated, but still impressive, examination of the destructive power of love and its ability to overcome logic and reason. This film rates a C.
I saw this film on broadcast television in the original German with English subtitles. There is an English language version of this same film, with the same director and stars, which reportedly is inferior to the German language version. I have also heard that there is a digitally-restored version of this film available on DVD. The version I saw had very bad sound and picture quality. Even so, Dietrich's singing performance is still impressive (the movie popularized the song "Falling in Love Again"). Dietrich's singing performance was spoofed in "Blazing Saddles." The restored DVD should have much better picture and sound quality than the overly contrasty televised print I saw.
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