This is the film that made Marlene Dietrich a household scandal back in 1930. It’s the story of how a pompous but respectable schoolteacher is lured on to the rocks by Lola-Lola, the nightclub singer in a Weimar-era club who can’t help “Falling in Love Again” (which Dietrich sings here). Poor Emil Jannings, who played the professor, thought he was the star of the film – as well he might since he’d won the Best Actor Oscar the year before, at the very first Academy Awards. He resisted director Von Sternberg’s choice of Dietrich, then a nobody, as the temptress. Von Sternberg had discovered her acting in a stage play quite by accident. “She was a perfect medium, who with intelligence absorbed my direction, and despite her own misgivings responded to my conception of a female archetype,” Von Sternberg later wrote. “I … took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections, and led her to crystallise a pictorial aphrodisiac.” He created an icon, in other words, and Jannings “the perfect actor… opposed me every step of the way.”
None of this opposition is visible on screen, where art is imitating life and the teacher’s human weakness is being swamped by Lola-Lola’s balls-out sensuality. The Blue Angel was one of the first major talkies shot in Germany and was made in both German and English versions – shot twice, not overdubbed or anything so simple. The German version is longer and more satisfying and it’s also better preserved. Indeed the English version was considered lost for decades. Restoration can do wonderful things but the sound is “restricted” as the technical types would describe it (it sounds like a tin-can-and-string telephone in other words). Top tip: watch the German version with English subtitles.
Why see it? It’s an early talkie from Germany’s Weimar period before the Nazis arrived, a classic story of a foolish humbug brought low by his own lust and a chance to see a legend in the process of being created, Dietrich in her breakout role, still slightly hausfrau-ish but already in top hat and black stockings, a performance that Madonna must have watched a thousand times.
© Steve Morrissey 2013