Der Blaue Engel (1930)This German gem is perhaps best known as the project that launched Marlene Dietrich’s film career and began her friendship with Josef von Sternberg. The plot is deceptively simple, Emil Jannings is Professor Immanuel Rath, a man who has dedicated his life to academics and is now in the autumn of his life. In an effort to keep his students from visiting the seedy club the Blue Angel, he attempts to catch them in the act of watching the beautiful, seductive, and intimidating Lola Lola. When his students escape, he appeals to Lola herself and her cohorts. Although he begins as a man firm in his disdain of Lola and her kind, he falls under her spell and is fired from his job because he decides he is going to marry her. Hit with the economic reality of his decision, Rath becomes a member of the act, shilling Lola’s postcards to the audience and slowly becoming a shell of himself. Lola’s promiscuous ways and Rath’s jealousy serve only to make Rath’s rage even more volatile. When the act returns to his hometown, Rath is nothing more than an expressionless clown in the act. He is humiliated in front of the audience and attacks Lola after seeing her very publicly carrying on an affair with the strongman. Rath is locked in a straitjacket, and when he is freed later that night he seeks sanctuary in the classroom he was forced out of what seems like a lifetime ago. He dies clutching the symbol of what he used to be.
The film is historic and remembered for a number of reasons: Dietrich’s film debut, the beginning of von Sternberg and Dietrich’s friendship and partnership, and the first appearance of Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again.” But the film is powerful enough to be remembered on its own. It is a drama of despair and we see an established and intelligent instructor become a shadow of his former self simply because of the speakeasy singer that he got himself involved with. Is Rath a romantic? Perhaps. Is he the victim of infatuation and lust? This is more likely. But does he deserve the fate that he suffers? Not at all. Rather early in the film one of the company members, a clown, eyes Rath suspiciously, questioning his presence though not verbalizing any of it. Instead, he stares blankly and defeatedly, helpless to change what he sees playing out before him, and foreshadowing Rath’s own demise and struggle with jealousy and lust.
Jannings was a star in his own right and fought for his protege Lucie Mannheim to be given the role of Lola Lola. As Dietrich writes in her autobiography, von Sternberg fought tooth and nail against Jannings and Ufa and even threatened to abandon the project and head to the U.S. if Dietrich was passed up. Perhaps it is this resentment and disdain for von Sternberg and Dietrich that carries over into Jannings’ performance and into the helplessness and powerlessness he embodies as Rath. Rath is both heartbreaking and pitiful.
Equally impressive is Dietrich’s performance as Lola Lola. In her autobiography, “Marlene,” Dietrich emphasizes again and again that it is because of von Sternberg that she achieved any level of success or praise. He was her teacher, her mentor, her creator...or so she says. While I don’t doubt that von Sternberg deserves much of the credit for drawing that performance from Dietrich, it is clear that there is more to her than a pair of stockings and a top hat. She is sultry, seductive, mesmerizing, and intimidating. She channels Theda Bara, sucking the life from her lover and leaving him a lifeless corpse. She is even at times tender at times, especially when Rath realizes that he is running late to class after spending the night in her boudoir. In fact, she is even sweet, if a bit patronizing, as she finds herself flattered by so bold an admirer.
In all, the film is gorgeous, dark, and unsettling. We mourn the loss of the professor, but there is something else we find ourselves contending with. Could it be that, despite the destruction she has brought upon her unsuspecting lover, we find ourselves under the spell of Lola Lola? Do we admire her as her former lovers once did?
Falling in love again. Never wanted to. What are we to do?
Can’t help it.