The Blue Angel: Two Disc Ultimate Blu-ray Edition
Reviewed by Graham Fuller
Produced by Erich Pommer; directed by Josef von Sternberg; written by Robert Liebmann, Karl Vollmoeller, and Carl Zuckmayer (in consultation with Sternberg), from the novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann; cinematography by Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger; set design by Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler; edited by Sam Winston; music by Friedrich Hollaender and Weintraubs-Syncopators; lyrics by Hollaender, Liebmann, and Richard Rillo; starring Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, Reinhold Bernt, Ilse Fürstenberg, Eduard von Winterstein, Hans Roth, Rolf Müller, Rolant Varno, Karl Balhaus, Robert Klein-Lörk, Karl Huszar-Puffy, Wilhelm Diegelmann, and Gerhart Bienert. Blu-ray, B&W, German version with subtitles 107 min., English version 104 min., 1930. A Kino Lorber release.
The single-disc Blu-ray of The Blue Angel that Kino Lorber issued in December 2012 featured only the restored high-definition German-language version—Der blaue Engel—of Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece. Released in December 2013, the two-disc package that’s under review here contains the German version, the marginally inferior English-language version that Sternberg filmed simultaneously at Ufa between November 4, 1929 and January 22, 1930. Also included on the new Blu-ray are a comparison of a classroom scene that exemplifies differences between the German and English versions, as well as Marlene Dietrich’s beguilingly offhand screen test for Sternberg, Dietrich archive footage, and trailers that appeared on the 2001 two-disc DVD. Absent from the Blu-ray is the DVD’s spare commentary by the film historian Werner Sudendorf, a chronicle of the film from preproduction until its banning in Germany in April 1933, and brief cast and crew biographies. Some of the omitted material had been useful in historically contextualizing the film for viewers who aren’t steeped in Blue Angel lore.
Presumably to differentiate the new Blu-ray from the previous one, Kino made a significant change to the disc cover. An advertising shot of Dietrich’s Lola-Lola, photographed in close-up, wearing her silvery white top hat, and smiling knowingly at the onlooker, replaced the DVD cover shot of her clasping her knee as she leans back on a beer barrel onstage, displaying the expanse of her gartered right thigh to the Blue Angel beer hall’s audience, to the smitten Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) in the loge above her, and to all the males (and females) since who have gazed on it. The latter image was, of course, extracted from the most famous still in cinema history; it is so famous that Kino playfully used a miniature cutout of it for the graphic that appears when users choose extras on the 2001 DVD.
Sternberg modeled Lola-Lola’s look on the death-laden images of women in Félicien Rops’s etchings and aquatints, though Egon Schiele’s 1913 “Woman in Black Stockings” anticipated Dietrich’s reclining. Her languid but inciting pose, photographed from different angles in the film, became instantaneously iconic. Miguel Covarrubias painted a green-faced Smith W. Brookhart, the Republican prohibitionist senator, leering at Dietrich, leaning forward but with her right leg angled at ninety degrees, in a Vanity Fair caricature of September 1932. As the 2001 DVD’s chronicle extra shows, on January 4, 1933, the Nazi humor magazine Die Brennessel (The Nettle) featured a National Socialist caricature of Heinrich Mann, the leftist author of the 1905 novel Professor Unrat, which was the source of The Blue Angel, as Lola on the barrel; a Michael Heath cartoon similarly lampooned Margaret Thatcher in the British conservative weekly The Spectator in June 1993. Among film actors who have adopted the pose, Helmut Berger did it in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Liza Minnelli, less accurately, in Cabaret (1972). Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen and especially Lola (1981) were indebted to The Blue Angel but drew most precisely on the pose in their advertising, the former exactly.
Commenting on some of these quotations (and providing other examples) in his 2002 British Film Institute monograph on The Blue Angel, S. S. Prawer observed how they all associated the film with “Nazism and also with sadomasochism and/or homosexuality.” Although it brings him only fleeting pleasure, Rath’s erotomaniacal desire for Lola-Lola, initially rationalized by him as chivalrous protectiveness, is self-brutalizingly sadomasochistic. The tragedy of his relinquishing his bourgeois status and respectability for fleshly pleasure is augured in psychological terms by Sternberg.
Having confiscated saucy postcards of Lola-Lola from his male English students, who have been visiting her at the Blue Angel, Rath goes there himself to rescue them, or so he thinks. The narrow street, or gauntlet, that takes him there contains warnings, in the lingering prostitutes, the sound of foghorns, and in its Expressionistic ambience, which Weimar moviegoers would have recognized as ominous. His second visit there is prompted by his conscientious wish to return to Lola-Lola her unwashed undergarment—sardonically fetishized, like her legs, by Sternberg—which had been mischievously stuffed in his pocket by one of his pupils, Goldstaub, and with which he had accidentally mopped his visage.
On his first visit, Lola-Lola shines a spotlight in his face; on his second, she blows face powder at him. These threatened Oedipal blindings are in keeping with Lola’s playing mother to his child: after nervously dropping cigarettes under her makeup table, Rath grovels at her feet as he picks them up and narrowly avoids looking between her legs (though Sternberg implicates the viewer as a voyeur when he offers him/her this privilege, as he offers him/her private shots of Dietrich’s thighs when she’s in her bedroom and Rath is downstairs). When he resurfaces beside her on his knees, she looks down on him and coos reassuringly as she combs his hair. It is as if she has intuited already that he is unmanly. Notwithstanding that, she marries him, partially because he will play a “sugar daddy” role for a while. By the time their traveling troupe returns to his town over four years later, he has become an unkempt depressive reduced to hawking postcards of his wife and playing a cockerel in the magician’s act. He is humiliated thus in front of his former fellow citizens, and when he sees Lola submit passively to the virile embrace of the strongman Mazeppa (Hans Albers), the sound he admits is not the amusing crow he offered at their wedding but the anguished scream of a cuckold.
It was Siegfried Kracauer, the author of From Caligari to Hitler (1947), who first suggested that The Blue Angel prefigured Nazism. Echoing Mann’s barbed comment to Jannings that, “The success of the film will rely in a great measure on the naked thighs of Miss Dietrich!,” Kracauer wrote that the film’s international success owed to the actress —”Her Lola was a new incarnation of sex”—but also to “its outright sadism. The masses are irresistibly attracted by the spectacle of torture and humiliation, and Sternberg deepened this sadistic tendency by making Lola-Lola destroy not only [Rath] himself but his entire environment.” He adds that the “sadistic cruelty” meted out to Rath by his pupils and the [stage] artists—primarily Lola-Lola and the magician-manager Kiepert, middle class like the professor—”results from the very immaturity which forces their victim into submission.” Kracauer saw a warning in the film: “The boys are born Hitler youths, and the cockcrowing device is a modest contribution to a group of similar, if more ingenious, contrivances much used in Nazi concentration camps.”
A more pernicious strain in the film than that outlined by Kracauer is detectable in the casting of the Jewish actors Kurt Gerron and Robert Klein-Lörk in the roles of the bullying Kiepert and the sneaky Goldstaub, respectively. Gerron would die in Auschwitz after directing the infamous propaganda film that depicted Theresienstadt as a model concentration camp. It is unlikely that Sternberg, himself a Jew, would have endorsed such anti-Semitic typage; some directives may have filtered down from Alfred Hugenberg, the right-wing nationalist politician who headed the Ufa consortium. Mann’s character Kieselack was renamed Goldstaub in the condensed version of Professor Unrat that preceded the screenplay; the dramatist Carl Zuckmayer, who wrote this intermediate novella (but contributed little, Sternberg claimed), would eventually flee the Nazis because his maternal grandfather had been born Jewish.
Kracauer’s belief in The Blue Angel’s proto-Nazi tendency has been countered by such film scholars as Anton Kaes. Sternberg himself habitually denied any interest in investing his films with political or sociological meanings. In his autobiography, he rhetorically dismissed Kracauer’s opinions that The Blue Angel was “a study in sadism” or “a considered statement of the psychological situation [in Germany] of the time.” The “Hitler Youths” and “cockcrowing device” theories, he said, went “far afield.” He added, “I must be forgiven if I state once more that most of the story of the film and its details existed only in my imagination, that I knew very little about Germany before I began it, that then I had not yet seen anyone resembling a Nazi….” Herman G. Weinberg’s critical study of Sternberg cites his comment: “Mine was an artist’s pilgrimage, and no more.”
He could not, of course, keep “the psychological situation” out of the film entirely. Speculating that Weimar Germany—and themes and atmosphere common to its movies—might “by some sort of osmosis” have “got into the private world Sternberg sought to construct in The Blue Angel,” Prawer aligns Rath with the “disoriented male figures” in the era’s films, including those played by Jannings in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Dupont’s Varieté (1925). He also posits that the performers in Kiepert’s troupe epitomized the kinds of “destructive outsiders” feared by respectable Weimar citizens.
In Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich and Mass Culture (2009), Barbara Kosta persuasively argues that the relationship between Rath and Lola-Lola embodies the gendered dialectical clash in Weimar Germany between high art (represented by the bibliophile Professor’s devotion to the word) and mass culture (represented by Lola as a sexualized female image produced by the new technological medium of the cinema). Kosta writes that “Dietrich’s supersensual presence in the film, produced by her body, legs, and voice”—and, one might add, the knowing smiles that acknowledge her sexual magnetism—”which mask Rath’s inadequacies, may explain critics’ blindness to the larger cultural struggle that the film stages, and which the sexualized body conceals or displaces, and that many critics stop short of naming.”
One might argue with equal conviction that the “sexualized body” of Lola-Lola displaces the “larger cultural struggle” with good cause. How else to explain the primacy in film culture (and popular culture in general) of the classic Dietrich pose alluded to above? A key example of its timeless power and ubiquity occurs in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), set in Paris in May 1968, when Louis Garrel’s student masturbates on a still of it. The shot is more indelible than any of the orgies or revolutionary protests in which he participates with his twin (Eva Green) and their American friend (Michael Pitt).
In The Blue Angel and the six Paramount films Sternberg subsequently devoted to Dietrich’s erotic allure, he recognized that the images he was creating would always retain more currency than the flimsy social or political elements of his stories or the metaphoric meanings he did or did not intend, or which have been subsequently supplied by critics and scholars. Desire, the Sternberg-Dietrich films ruefully proclaim, is an infinitely renewable force, more enduring than romance, reason, or the events that shape nations and societies. As Lola’s signature song “Falling in Love Again” makes clear, with its “men hover round me like moths around a flame” analogy, she is not accountable for Rath’s self-destruction, or the terminal melancholy of the two wasted clown figures, her former lovers, who provide a silent Greek chorus to his sufferings. She just is.
Neither the German and English versions of The Blue Angel on the Blu-ray are pristine, but both are cleaner and clearer than the versions that appeared on the 2001 DVD. That both are extremely grainy adds to their mystique as films made eighty-four years ago. Mild background hiss can be heard on both tracks. The majority of the dialogue and singing is audible, though the snatches of German conversation heard on the English version might have been helpfully subtitled.
Graham Fuller has written about cinema for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. His Website is at inalonelyplace.com.
To purchase the Kino Two-Disc Ultimate Edition Blu-ray, click here.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2