The Blue Angel (1930)

"The Blue Angel" (1930) featured image

The Blue Angel (1930). 99 minutes. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Emil Jannings (as Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (as Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (as Kiepert, the magician), Hans Albers (as Mazeppa, the strongman), and Reinhold Bernt (as the clown).  Songs by Friedrich Holländer and Robert Liebmann.

Roger Ebert concludes his review of The Blue Angel by placing its characters in historical context: “You can glimpse the sadomasochism of the Nazi pose in the strange relationship of Professor Rath and Lola Lola.”  Although there are no explicit allusions to Hitler’s political movement in the 1930 film, Ebert’s suggestion that a creepy Nazi power dynamic is evident in the Jannings-Dietrich portrayal is provocative and probably accurate.  The Blue Angel was originally released in the years just before Germany’s official transformation into a Nazi state, and it surely picks up on those larger cultural currents.  But the film is also a weird sort of backstage musical that leaves a bad taste in the mouth independent of political resemblances.  It may be evidence of a kind of early fascination with the key personality types of National Socialism, but it does not particularly celebrate them. The movie takes a dark look at our susceptibility to corruption and the profound extent to which we can be dehumanized by precisely those personalities.

The film is ostensibly about Professor Rath, a German high school instructor who learns that some of his students are frequenting a sleazy, nautical-themed nightclub called The Blue Angel.  He ventures to the club in order to catch his students there and also to confront the proprietor, but instead he falls in love with the feature act: the confident and sultry singer Lola Lola.  He eventually decides to marry her, is terminated from his position at the high school, and goes on the road with her troupe as a dresser.  Soon he becomes disenchanted with their way of life.  Due to jealousy, sorrow, and shame, his mental state deteriorates, and at Lola’s behest he works as a clown sidekick to the troupe’s front man, the magician Kiepert.  Kiepert proposes that they take the show back to their hometown, where the local audience will presumably flock to see the disgraced and mentally impaired Rath as a clown at The Blue Angel.  During his humiliating homecoming performance, Rath spies Lola embracing the strongman Mazeppa in the wings and has a violent breakdown.  He eventually escapes from the theater and wanders back to the high school where he taught, enters his old classroom, and dies clutching his desk.

The Blue Angel begins by making us think it may go down the path of comedy.  I am thinking in particular of the scenes of the professor bumbling through the nightclub and chasing down his naughty students, along with the pervasive singing and frequent jokes about underwear.  Yet ultimately the film marries these hijinks with more severe, brutal, and dehumanizing episodes.  In an early classroom scene, for example, Professor Rath picks on a student for not being able to pronounce the English word “the” convincingly.  He forces the student to stand and then approaches him very closely, belting out the word repeatedly and angrily while commanding the nervous student to repeat it back; they enunciate so forcefully that they spit on each other, but Professor Rath is not pleased with the student’s progress.  Moments like this work to convince us that Rath is not immune from unleashing humiliation on others—he is a cold and unfeeling teacher.  A scene where his student assistant is kicked coming down the school steps and Rath merely stands by and watches reinforces this impression.

Of course, he is also a compromised teacher.  From the moment he learns that his students are patrons of The Blue Angel and confiscates the postcards of Lola that are circulating in his class, we see that he, too, is transfixed by her beauty and provocative expressions.  One postcard in particular shows Lola wearing underwear and stockings, with a three-dimensional feather attachment concealing her panties.  Just as we earlier see Rath’s students blowing on the skirt to make it reveal Lola’s delicate underthings, so too do we see Rath in private blowing on one of the confiscated postcards.  This is a movie that strives to show us that corruption is universal, sexual corruption in particular.  It does not take long for Rath to fall in love with Lola.

Lola’s sexuality is a crucial part of her act.  Her iconic performance of “Ich bin die fesche Lola” (“They Call Me Naughty Lola”) involves her laconically posed in a chair with one knee bent and a shiny top hat on her head.  Her sensuality is effortless.  She performs in revealing costumes comprised for the most part solely of undergarments, and we often see her backstage changing into and out of these outfits.  She often tugs at her underwear in a somewhat vulgar way as she adjusts her costume in front of the professor and other guests; these little gestures suggest a lack of self-consciousness on the part of performers backstage, which Rath may be misinterpreting as special overtures towards him specifically, even though such casual attitudes towards dressing and undressing are fairly common in the backstage areas of the world’s theaters.  Yet here specifically the impersonal nature of The Blue Angel’s backstage—with the crowds of people pouring through Lola’s dressing space, the flashing of flesh, and the lack of concern for personal privacy—seems an exaggeration of this theatrical norm.  Even as Rath embarks on what may be a sexual relationship with Lola, we find that her “apartment” above the dressing space is hardly private: it is merely up a circular staircase that everyone seems to have access to.

So much of what we see backstage involves Lola putting on and taking off costumes repeatedly—but despite the fact that she is usually in her underthings and exposed in a very physical sense to many people, it is hard to feel as if we know her at all well.  Rath makes the mistake of thinking that to see Lola half-dressed is to understand her.  The distinction between the sensibility of a person like Rath and that of a person like Lola is underscored by the fact that early on Rath inadvertently ends up taking home a pair of Lola’s ruffled panties and accidentally uses them as a handkerchief.  He is shocked to learn that they are in his possession.  It is not clear that Lola knows that he made off with them at first, but it is also not clear later that she minds—not because of her feelings for Rath or the absence of those feelings, but because she might not care if anyone has that kind of treasured access to her private life.  Lola seems not to be concerned so much with what she gives to men as with what she can take from them.  As she tosses clothes around, we wonder if her relationship with costumes mirrors her relationship with the men she tantalizes in the club.

Despite her sexual playfulness towards Rath, it is not clear why Lola consents to marry him. Could it be because he defends her honor against one of the sleazy big-spenders that the magician Kiepert seems to pimp her out to regularly?  Could it be because of the way Rath stands up to the police who enter her dressing room at one point?  The answer is not obvious.  When Rath wakes up in Lola’s apartment one morning, she greets him by calling him “darling.”  She seems to suggest over breakfast that they could have many more such mornings together.  When he later proposes to her, however, she laughs and is so overcome with the ridiculousness of the situation that she takes several steps backwards, causing the camera to move to keep her in frame.  That the marriage proposal moves the couple so far apart physically that the camera has to reposition itself to keep one character in shot is indicative of the kind of relationship Lola and Rath really have.

On that note, the callousness of the characters to each other, and of Lola in particular towards Rath, is remarkable.  After she goes on the road with Rath and the rest of the troupe, she seems to use Rath primarily as her dresser.  He also tries, at her behest, to sell the provocative postcards that attracted him to her in the first place.  On the night we see him peddling them in the theater, after previously having heard him swear that he never would, we also see him fail to do so successfully: he can sell only two, and Lola and Kiepert are convinced that he is unsuccessful because he looks unkempt and is letting himself go.  And yet for Rath, the process of selling these images of Lola must be like selling her as well, something that unnerves him but that she is not concerned with—which is something that unnerves him even further.

Rath as a teacher is taunted by students who alter his last name to form a compound meaning “garbage.” “Professor Trash,” they chant at him during his last day in the school.  Part of what this movie explores is the extent to which people can transform others into debased figures, much like trash.  Lola and Kiepert work to accomplish this by pressuring Rath into performing a clown act in their traveling show.  Although Rath’s mental illness is so developed by that time that he is barely capable of speaking, and he insists feebly that he cannot perform, Lola is undeterred: he will go on stage. The culmination of his humiliation occurs back at The Blue Angel.  Using Rath as his foolish assistant in a magic act, Kiepert smashes an egg on Rath’s forehead, and the professor crows like a sad, demented rooster.

The transformation of Rath into a clown is significant because of the extreme denigration that it involves but also because in the first part of the film there is another clown who performs at The Blue Angel.  This clown, who is not dehumanized but who seems otherworldly nonetheless, appears only backstage, is completely silent, and merely stares at Rath as Rath ingratiates himself with Lola, leaving us to wonder how many times the clown has seen this happen before.  This silent observer is a compassionate outsider in the story—we never see him perform or do anything other than emerge from his dressing room and sorrowfully watch Rath.  Ultimately whatever human connection he has to offer Rath disappears when Rath marries Lola and goes on the road, leaving The Blue Angel and the observer clown behind.  There are some definite echoes of King Lear in this movie, and this earlier clown plays the Fool to Rath’s Lear; it is not a coincidence that in the first part of the movie Rath has his students recite and write about Shakespeare.  Interestingly, just as the observer clown disappears after Rath and Lola’s wedding, Lear’s Fool also disappears for good in the play when, much like Rath, the aging, formerly distinguished Lear goes fully insane.

This is Germany’s first all-sound feature film, and in it Marlene Dietrich as Lola sings some wonderful songs (including “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt”/”Falling in Love Again,” among others).  I was fascinated by the performance space that Lola and her colleagues use at The Blue Angel: it is a tangle of nets, statues, corridors, and staircases.  The stage itself is oddly casual: it consists simply of a row of chairs.  The performers sit around, chat, and drink alcohol while one or two at a time stand up and sing a suggestive song.  No one looks polished, precise, or deliberate while singing in the club, and artists just sort of drift on and off stage, stopping and starting at odd times, never projecting very much.   There is little distinction here again between private-time behavior (drinking, chatting with fellow performers) and professional stage time—boundary issues that echo Lola’s complex mingling of public sexy performance and private romantic life.  It is all a bit dreamy, but not in a good way, and reeks of corruption, anomie, and the sloughing off of an old era.

The Blue Angel is not a flattering depiction of theater people.  I suppose this movie serves as a strong warning to young boys and men to stay away from nightclubs, but it could just as easily warn anyone off of dating performers.  It stands in interesting contrast to some of the chipper backstage musicals that would come out of Hollywood just a few years later.  The Blue Angel makes 42nd Street look very rosy indeed.