Sunday, 24 January 2021

Der Blaue Engel (aka The Blue Angel)


Lola Powered

Der Blaue Engel
(aka The Blue Angel)

Germany 1930
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Universum Film (UFA)
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Story spoilers reside within.

The Blue Angel is the first of seven films made by the legendary director/actress team of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and it’s the film which finally launched Dietrich’s film career. She’d been around in loads of little film roles since 1919 and, from the sounds of it, had just about given up on movie acting when Sternberg spotted her in a theatrical performance and had her screen test for the role, for which she beat out the likes of Louise Brooks (iconic star of Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl) and Brigitte Helm (similarly iconic star of Metropolis). She soon became Sternberg’s lover, prompting his divorce when the two fled Germany to continue the next six films together in the United States.

And I have to say, it’s nice to finally catch up with it again. Especially in this new Blu Ray edition where the film has never looked better although, I have to say, due to the clarity and detail on the beautiful transfer, Dietrich looks a lot older in this as Lola Lola than she used to. The kind of print quality I’m used to seeing this one on always made her look like a young teenager but the detail of this print means she looks possibly even a little older than her, then, 29 years of age.

The film doesn’t really ‘belong’ to her, as such. It’s based on a Heinrich Mann novel, Professor Unrat and is a starring vehicle for the main protagonist of the novel’s title as played by famous German actor Emil Janning’s, who is perhaps best known over here these days for his star turn in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. There’s no doubt he’s brilliant in it and, although Dietrich completely steals all the scenes she’s in, the film really is a two hander between their two acting styles which, in a way, are at odds with each other. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together on screen (and perhaps partially why Jannings threatened to strangle Dietrich on set, since the same chemistry could not be said for their off-screen relationship).

There’s no doubt though that Jennings plays this part really well and he somehow manages to match the film’s transformation from the broad comedy of his stuffy (though absent minded) professor into the tragic demise of his character’s downward spiral throughout the movie. He gives a truly comical performance which, given that Sternberg elects for not always filling his scenes with dialogue, suits the almost ‘silent film’ acting that Jennings is continuing to use in this talking picture. He does it so well and it’s not unlike many comic performances touted today.

Sternberg matches him with framing, lighting and editorial decisions that make the film stand out from a lot of others I’ve seen of that period. Starting off strongly with a shot of twisted rooftops and, later, streets which are obviously stage bound and match the German Expressionist aesthetic started up by silent films such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, the film is always visually interesting. After a couple of street shots, a cleaner opens the shutters of her store window to reveal a poster drawing of Dietrich as the infamous Lola Lola, throwing water onto the pane to foreshadow the character to the audience. Then, after a while of bumbling, we get some of the professor’s students going crazy over a postcard and constantly blowing on it. It takes maybe a half an hour for the image on the postcard to be revealed... that it’s a shot of Dietrich with a feather attached to the card where her dress would be, the constant blowing revealed to be the trick to lift the feather and reveal her legs in suspenders. A nice touch... not just the novelty of the trick but the way Sternberg teases the constant ‘blowing’ and then keeps the vital information as to why, away from the audience for a while.

There are some interesting things happening here from Sternberg. He seems fascinated by a bell tower style clock with its moving figurines and uses extended shots of this to show the time when the professor is due to begin his class at least twice... the second time its comprised of a montage of the figures moving, superimposed over each other. I’m not sure, in all honesty, why he chooses to reveal the time in this fashion but it certainly makes for an interesting way of ushering it in, for sure.

Another nice thing he does, once the Professor has married Lola Lola and been expelled from his job at the local college, after she has him crowing like a cock and losing his last shreds of dignity while his slow downfall begins, is to introduce the concept of time moving through an unexpectedly unannounced montage. The professor hands Dietrich her curling tongs, after which she hands them back and tells him they’re too hot. He pulls a piece of paper off the calender to burn on them to cool them down, then takes the tongs to the calender to cool them down some more by burning through another date on the calendar. We then cut to the montage of the calendar in close up as the tongs burn through first days and then the years, indicating four years have passed. Never mind the fact that he has already declared that not another postcard will be sold of Lola Lola while he has a penny to his name and he’s shortly, thereafter, the one trying to sell them during her performances at The Blue Angel night club. No, here we catch up to him again on tour with the company as he makes up in the personae of a clown and then, when he is forced to return to his hometown at The Blue Angel and appear in a sold out show in front of his former students and colleagues, his ‘cocks crow’ which brought so much delight at his wedding turns into a continual shriek of despair and anguish as he finally loses it and has to be forcefully restrained from murdering both his wife and her new lover.

When he leaves his profession in an earlier part of the film, Sternberg treats the viewers to a pull back of the empty classroom. In a beautifully shot moment of poetic irony, when the professor is let out of his straightjacket and returns to his old classroom at night, he dies at his desk and the pull back from his corpse matches up to that earlier movement in the same room.

Jannings is brilliant in this but Dietrich, who has a completely naturalistic, less flamboyant style of acting compared to Jannings, more than matches him with her almost hypnotic presence in the scenes she’s in. Her brilliance here is the reaction of the over the top tirades of her fellow actor and, well, like I said, she pretty much steals all the scenes she’s in.

The Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray release gives us a lovely transfer with not only the original German language version (which is the one I elected to watch for this review) but also the English alternate version shot by Sternberg with the same cast, for release in England and the US (although I don’t believe it was actually released in America until after they’d released Sternberg and Dietrich’s Morocco). It also comes with some nice extras including Dietrich’s wonderful 3-4 minute screen test for the role (which really just show you how good she is as an actress) but also a few of her 1970s concert tour numbers as well as a ‘visual essay’ on the film. It also has the contents of this Blu Ray included on two DVDs (it’s a three disc set) and it really is the best introduction you’re going to get if you’ve never seen this movie before. Definitely one to be recommended, for sure. I’ve only seen a few of their follow up films (good old BBC2, back in the day) but I will be catching up with the other six they made together at some point over the next year or two due to a box set I bought around a year ago by Indicator, which has all their Paramount films in one venue. But, honestly, The Blue Angel is the one to watch if you want to see the magic as it first happens and, like I said, Jannings performance is quite remarkable too. A must have for any cinema enthusiast’s shelf, for sure.

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