This review contains spoilers.
For a filmmaker who was supposedly uninterested in visual allegory, Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is full of potential for visuals readings if wanted. One of the first sound films to come out of Germany, it is astonishing how the medium’s relative newness seems to have had little negative effect on the visuals of this pioneering film. However it is not just visual flair and innovative use of sound that Sternberg’s film possesses but also a highly provocative look at sexuality and its ability to dominate character and bend even the supposedly strongest of individuals into the form of a local clown.
The film opens with some visuals straight out of the German Expressionist movement. The film will ground itself more in the realism aesthetic later on but, for the moment, the film uses expressionistic visuals to later contrast the difference in ideals of the two main characters (Gas lights to electricity being the main visual contrast). Immanuel Rath is a professor at the local school. He is a buffoonish patriarch destined for a downfall of some form. A masterly performance from Emil Jannings is really the highlight of the film in spite of a lot of the attention being given to Marlene Dietrich’s performance as the proto-femme fetal Lola.
The professor’s life is one of a husk; very little is lived for and his only pleasure is in punishing his students who seem very aware of his short comings and oafish idiocy. Upon finding some racy cards of a dancer, secretly planted on the teacher’s pet, the professor investigates The Blue Angel nightclub where he is at first shocked at what he finds. His chance meetings with Lola the dancer begins his decent into humiliation and he eventually pays the ultimate sacrifice.
The Blue Angel is a film that treats sexuality as a drug, as if embracing it makes the addict barter more and more of their life away. In one sense the film seems overly brutal towards its main character, as if Sternberg is actually taking pleasure from destroying the life of the professor. In some ways the film resembles the first segment of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), showing the honest brutality of one character’s actions to another’s. However, unlike Murnau’s film, The Blue Angel is like an extended take of this brutality as we watch Lola slowly force the professor to sacrifice his job, his home and his honour.
His relationship and eventual marriage to the dancer becomes the talk of the town, resulting in him becoming involved in the shows and travelling vaudeville of Lola’s friends. A clown has been present throughout his visits to the club from the very off when he was trying to capture his pupils. It seems that this was meant as a vision of the future for our professor who eventually becomes the humiliated clown, used in a magician’s magic show. Sternberg’s film is interesting in that it shows the power of sex. Not just as a tool to the typical femme fetals of film noir territory but as a potential drug like substance that, once taken, becomes essential to living even at the cost of everything else.
The Masters of Cinema release is packed with extras and insights. Not only is there a new 1080p HD version of the German release present, there’s also a curious, if slightly battered, English version of the film too. This acts more as an interest than as a genuine way of viewing the film which is slowed down remarkably by the actors having to enunciate the script in English. However this isn’t all that the release provides.
An excellent commentary from Tony Rayns is a brilliant starting point for those after more information on Sternberg, Dietrich, Jannings and German film history. His fact telling wavers little in the full and enjoyable commentary that could have turned into a lecture in the wrong hands. Instead it feels like a casual but wonderfully in depth conversation with a film scholar of the highest calibre.
More curious extras include footage of Dietrich’s screen test which reminds of some of the more lose moments from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s catalogue. Her outrage at a piano player’s inability to play an accompaniment properly shows the actress had a fiery inner talent from the very off. More Dietrich extras are less exciting with some later performances of her show numbers from The Blue Angel included in all their garish glory. Also included is a lavish booklet, the majority of which is taken up by Sternberg’s own assessment of the film which details the making of the film and the excitement that sound caused to the director.
The Blue Angel is more than just a blueprint for more sexually powerful characters. It is an amalgamation of film cultures and movements, coming together to make the most out of the new advent of sound. This is the first Sternberg release on the label and here’s hoping it to be the first of many for the director whose output is more than applicable to title Master of Cinema.
The Blue Angel is released as part of the Masters of Cinema series for Eureka on the 28th of January.