Directed by Josef von Sternberg, The Blue Angel is a German tragicomedy starring Marlene Dietrich as the beautiful and alluring cabaret singer Lola Lola, and Emil Jannings as Professor Immanuel Rath, whose infatuation with her drives him to ruin.
Josef von Sternberg, born in Vienna, emigrated to America when he was fourteen years old, and began his film career at the age of seventeen as an assistant at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, which in the earliest part of the twentieth century was the centre of the American film industry. As he climbed the career ladder from lowly errand boy to director he learned his craft from filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim, and by the late 1920s he was busy making a string of his own pictures for Paramount. Unfortunately for Sternberg, his work for the studio in this period was largely a disappointment at the box office, and relations between Paramount and their director were becoming strained.
In 1929 Sternberg left Hollywood for the UFA studios in Berlin. UFA – Germany’s largest film studio – had a robust star system to rival that of Los Angeles, and produced some of the most enduring and influential pictures of the Expressionist era. The film he chose to make was loosely based on a story by Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat, but Sternberg discarded most of its plot in favour of his own – the tragic tale of a professor driven insane by his obsession with a cabaret singer.
The professor would be played by Emil Jannings, appearing in his first talkie. Jannings was a huge star in the silent era, and won the first Academy Award for Best Actor, moving to Hollywood in 1927 after his popularity brought him to the attention of Paramount. His thick German accent brought his American career to a screeching halt once sound arrived however, and he returned to Europe.
Several actresses were considered to play opposite him, including Trude Hesterberg, Brigitte Helm and Käthe Haack, but they were either unavailable or considered insufficiently glamorous to truly embody Lola. Everything changed when Sternberg met Marlene Dietrich, who entered his life asking for a small part in exchange for a letter of reference from the film’s screenwriter Karl Vollmöller. Sternberg knew as soon as he saw her that she was perfect for his vision of the enticing cabaret singer.
It would be fair to say that Professor Immanuel Rath does not have the love of his students. The boys in his class are constantly acting out, disrupting classes and drawing unkind caricatures of their educator. Rath is incensed when he hears that some of his students have been visiting the local cabaret club at night, and he goes there determined to catch them. Instead he becomes entranced by Lola, the cabaret’s star act, and his passion for her leaves his career hanging in the balance.
Rath quits his job as a professor so that he can marry Lola, and the pair travel around the country with the cabaret, with Rath depending solely on his wife for support. He becomes a hawker of her post-show postcards, and eventually sinks to the role of a clown in Lola’s troupe, one who seems to haunt the stage and dressing rooms. He becomes increasingly jealous of Lola’s dalliances with other men, which only add to his sense of degradation.
Rath is horrified to learn that the cabaret will be returning to his hometown, where the audience will be filled with his former colleagues, students and contemporaries. He is forced to perform a humiliating routine in which a magician breaks eggs on his head, and to make matters worse he is in full view of Lola and a handsome strongman embracing off-stage. This is enough to finally tip him over the edge, and he lunges at Lola in an attempt to strangle her. He is wrestled off of her and placed in a straitjacket.
Rath is released later that night, and wanders hopelessly through the winding streets. His path leads him towards his old classroom where – despite the taunts and mocking of his students – he last occupied a respectable place in society. Rath is entirely bereft, of his title, career, wife and dignity, and he dies seemingly of sheer destitution, slumped over his desk, clutching at its edges.
Sternberg was so infatuated with Dietrich both on and off-camera that his wife sued her during their divorce proceedings (the suit was later dropped once the divorce was finalised). The extra attention Sternberg lavished upon her sparked jealousy not only from his wife, but also from his leading man. Jannings, who was receiving top billing on the film, was furious about the amount of time being spent on Dietrich’s performance, feeling that his own would suffer from the lack of attention.
It is true that Jannings’ career would decline in popularity as Dietrich’s star soared, but this had little to do with Sternberg’s direction. Jannings enthusiastically participated in the transformation of Germany’s film industry from an international hub of artistic experimentation to a powerful tool of Nazi propaganda. Whilst he denied supporting the Nazis in the years after World War II, there is evidence that he favoured Hitler as early as the 1928 elections. His films were not widely distributed outside of the Reich during the war, although he did receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
In contrast, Dietrich – notably an anti-Nazi activist – experienced a huge boom in her career throughout the 1930s and beyond, when she was one of America’s biggest stars. The Blue Angel, which was a huge international success upon its release, is responsible for first bringing her to worldwide attention, and contains the first performance of her signature song, ‘Falling in Love Again’. Sternberg leveraged the film’s popularity into a contract for her at Paramount, and the pair would make six films together between 1930 and 1935, co-creating her image as perhaps Hollywood’s most iconic femme fatale.