When Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich ended their cinematic affair to remember with The Devil Is a Woman, a feverish culmination of a peerless seven-film itch, it seemed the latter had clearly helped the former understand a thing or two about the psychological terrain of the distaff side. The distance in Von Sternberg’s evolution between their first date and their forced separation may have marked an even wider gulf than the Atlantic Ocean, which the pair promptly crossed following production of both English- and German-language versions of The Blue Angel. Their first film together set the template that all their future collaborations in Hollywood would both enrich and deconstruct, and in many ways outright transcend.
The Blue Angel stars Emil Jannings (Oscar’s first Best Actor winner, but one whose method hasn’t aged particularly well) as Immanuel Rath, a rigid, authoritarian professor at the sort of boys’ school where pupils are invariably taught that everything you do or think merits a demerit. Resenting his intractable attitudes about the facts of life, his students take to calling him “Professor Garbage” (a pun that doesn’t translate over from German) and punking the class’s bespectacled teacher’s pet. When Rath discovers a number of risqué postcards in his boys’ breast pockets, he decides to hunt down the leg-baring minx they clearly revere, the cabaret chanteuse Lola Lola (Dietrich). He lasts nearly 20 seconds in her presence before his beady little eyes are practically replaced by pulsating, pink cartoon hearts.
It’s to both Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s mutual credit that the hoary thesis of The Blue Angel’s storyline—all women are sirens, singing a unified chorus of “Falling In Love Again” to an army of men who are, it turns out, the ones who truly can’t help it—registers largely as a regrettable product of its time, just as some of the more awkward stretches of dead-zone pacing, especially early on during the classroom sequences, can easily be excused as a byproduct of early talkies. Whether a conscious decision on her part or a function of her neophyte acing skills, Dietrich’s Lola Lola is hardly some one-dimensional femme fatale. Her early scenes with Jannings’s alternately bashful and indignant Garbage show her in full command of the situation, but more intrigued than conniving. She lets him be seduced by her natural sexual authority. She lets him lay his own trap, and it’s also worth noting that his downfall from a position of social prominence is entirely by his own engineering. He’s undone by the matryoshka doll-like layers of self abnegation he’s cocooned himself within to tame the beast that The Blue Angel suggests was always lurking within.
Kino's Blu-ray release for The Blue Angel only features the German edition of the film, which is a bummer for anyone who was hoping to do a few scene-by-scene comparisons between that and the English version. The 1.19:1 aspect ratio looks tight and the print holds up fairly well for a film its age. There are scratches and flaws a plenty, but the grain is rich and the contrast is generally solid, occasionally reverting into what appears to have been an inferior print for a few key scenes. The sound is disappointingly shrill during the musical numbers, but what can you say? The era can't help it.
An even bigger bummer is that Kino dropped the bonus features that accompanied the movie's release on DVD years back. Did they lose the rights to the commentary track?
While by some measure creakier than the six Hollywood films that Von Sternberg and Dietrich collaborated on in its wake, The Blue Angel still laid down a solid template for their strange relationship.