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The Blue Angel / Der blaue Engel (1930)


Old Jack here was half way through a Robert Donat film (review to follow once I’ve started to understand it – Marlene Dietrich is poncing about doing snotty middle aged glamour), when the system crashed, rebooted, offered up the BFI Player and Der blue Engel. So, what the hey, play was pressed and the first full-length talkie from Germany played out in all its nastiness: The Blue Angel.

…is a nightclub sufficiently oddly designed to possibly not be a nightclub at all; I’m not sure. In it, a far earlier Marlene Dietrich is singing her lifetime classic (top to toe for falling in love again…or something) and sort of dancing in the most unexpectedly, career-birthing, cheaply sexy way. For she is Lola Lola, a honey trap for college boys yearning to be men.

The film starts with the tedium of those boys’ days. School and facing off to Emil Jannings‘ (him again…) pernickety, precise and unbelievably snarky Professor Immanuel Rath. He comes to class in a flounce of habits, ending with a sluggish blow of the nose on a careful controlled handkerchief, and a snarky march through some Shakespeare. Given what he was in real life, there’s some sourness in his criticism of one youth who goes for ‘zee’ over ‘the’…

The usual characters abide: a snitch, a glassy-eyed youth and his posh colleague, and a crowd of howlers. Rath catches sight of a favoured postcard badly hidden by one of them…takes it…retires to his drab apartment with its drab housekeep…and blows at the feathery skirt attached to the picture of Lola… In officious search for the distracted boys, Rath meanders the cobbles, skewiff backstreets to the Blue Angel. He is appalled, entranced, and giving Emil Jannings a first go at presence in a talkie. Apparently that was the plan, but the second twenty-nine year old Dietrich saunters on to the stage…

Well, she earned her instant adoration by international audiences. Presumably men. Possibly men in secret as the sexuality, its obviousness, its energy, and the volume of costumes that boil down to mighty floofy knickerbockers, suggest this was banned throughout the world and caught by those in search of a wank-bank top-up in specialist clubs. Much like The Blue Angel. Anyway, blessed be the director and his designers: everything looks gorgeous.

So, that’s the first hour done: Jannings plays old professor trapped in the ambit of a beautiful young girl. And who hasn’t been there? Dietrich plays said girl with a travelling-show looseness that mesmerises him and the viewer. Trust old Jack, it’s uncannily modern. Rath hunts down the boys, who hide some abandoned bockers of knick on him, giving him an excuse to come see Lola again…and his needs are sealed. At school, the boys take the piss out of the professor’s infatuation…

I said this film is nasty. It is. The oncoming fall from grace, presaged by a clown who ambles repeatedly past Jannings looking like a ghoul of doom, is awful. Jannings’ Rath drops from dickish professor to foolish paramour to hubristic husband to wrecked player in this itinerant band. And Lola and the band of players – in a five year leap – destroy him. For there is a cycle playing out here. It’s not quite clear whether the clown was the last victim, but if this were The Twilight Zone, he would have been Lola’s last husband.

The film is around the 90 minute long and acknowledged as a stone-cold classic of the cinema: brisk, efficient, beautifully visualised and stuffed with clear characters and a knife-sharp, if linear, plot. Josef von Sternberg and his writers pulled off a bit of storytelling magic, here. In two versions, apparently: German and English, good and rubbish. The BFI are showing the original with sub-titles.

But it is a German film, made then, starring Jannings – first Oscar winner and thereafter Hitler’s favourite. So… mixed feelings and dreadful things lurk in the background. Dietrich went one way, rejecting Nazism and heading to America; Jannings went the other…

Kurt Gerron plays the magician-cum-manager of the enterprise. One of several fat men in the film, more a coincidence than an echo of the tubby Rath, he barks at the staff and simpers at the clientele. It’s the tolling bell in Rath’s humiliation that he is on the receiving end of both; from respected professor he falls to bullied and yelled-at newborn-clown… And the awful reality – out in that real world of Nazis and Jews – is that fourteen years later, when Jannings was lauded by Hitler, Gerron ran from the Reich. A Jewish performer, the first Mack the Knife, he and his family fell: they sought escape across Europe, but the engine of war caught up, pushed them into a concentration camp, awfully, made Gerron produce a propaganda film of kind treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, then gassed him and his wife in the final batch of such murders.

The disgust the film wants you to feel at Rath’s destruction, goaded on by Dietrich’s new flirtation with a man of square jaw and immediate passion, is lost in the ambivalence this viewer at least felt towards the participants’ real life politics and fates.

If you are happy to separate art from artist, The Blue Angel is what it is acclaimed to be: a terrific example of cinema leaping from silence into sound. Pity Jannings in the final shot, clinging to a life destroyed by his desires; but pity Kurt Gerron for what the dark hearts amongst them were waiting to do.

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