not in our stars, but in ourselves
I promise not to watch only Weimar-era films for the foreign film category. Honest. But The Blue Angel (1930) is just so darn good, and a fitting end to my week-o’-divas (you all noticed, right?), and so that’s that.
The first sound film to come out of Germany, it is even more noteworthy as the first of many collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. On paper, the story sounds mostly like a melodrama with sharp social commentary edges: Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings, whose name may have been above the title but who was quite eclipsed by Dietrich – and he knew it) is a teacher at a high school in a nameless German town. He becomes aware that his students – future Nazis, I’d say, judging by their sadism and seeming sociopathy – are sneaking into a local nightclub every night to see Lola Lola (Dietrich). She is the star of a sleazy cabaret show, singing bawdy songs and showing a lot of leg while she does. Rath goes to the club, the titular Blue Angel, to confront her for corrupting his students. However, he is so shocked and set aflame by her frank sexuality and forthright nature that he is instantly smitten. He returns the next night, and they sleep together. Facing ruin in his pedagogical career after having lost control of his students and respect of his colleagues, he asks Lola to marry him. She laughs heartily, and not kindly, but accepts him. As the years pass, he goes from being an imperious professor to being the tragic “comic relief” in the show: the saddest clown in all of Germany.
Yes, it’s another of those films about the degradation of love. Such a popular theme. But of course, it’s not real love. It’s obsession. Lola knows well enough who and what she is: a hot piece to bring in all the horny male customers, a flirt and a tease and an available party if anyone is interested and willing to pay. In the English version, she sings “Falling in Love Again” – but the German version is much more thematically appropriate: “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt”, or “From Head to Foot, I’m Made for Love”. No kidding:
Once she got to Hollywood (with von Sternberg) later in 1930, she almost immediately took on the persona of the wry, sophisticated, cool and cynical maneater. Here, however, she’s a slattern. She’s talented at one thing, and it’s not singing. She sniffs to Kiepert (Kurt Gerron) that she is an “artist” and shouldn’t be doing anything so common as bringing drinks to the clientele – but it’s clear that neither she nor he takes that protest seriously. She’s there to be looked at, flirted with, maybe groped a little, and fantasized about. She knows it, and she doesn’t seem to envision anything better for herself. Every now and then, I rail against male writers’ dreams of predatory women, but Lola strikes me as a real person. She’s not good or bad: she’s just a cabaret singer in a crummy traveling show. Morality has very little place in a Weimar-era story.
The tragedy of The Blue Angel is that Rath thinks morality still matters, still has a place. He thinks he can and will rescue Lola from her endless circles through seedy nightclub hell – but she doesn’t want that. She laughs at that. She sees that the world is a hell anyway, so she may as well get a few thrills from it while she’s there. He has been living his comfortable, sheltered middle-class existence, where authority still has a place; where there’s order and reason, as far as he’s concerned; where he has a dumpy maid to bring him his breakfast every morning; where he lays out his notebooks and pens meticulously each morning. Once he steps outside, he’s too soft and naive to understand how to cope. He’s a relic from an older, gentler age. Quite simply, he can’t keep up.
There’s more tragedy to The Blue Angel, behind the scenes. Jannings didn’t have much luck in Hollywood once talkies came in, due to his thick German accent, so he stayed in Europe and made numerous Nazi propaganda films. After World War II, his career was ruined and he died five years later. I’m not saying it’s at all tragic that a Nazi sympathizer and supporter was summarily dismissed by the world, but it is an awful waste of talent. Jannings was perhaps German cinema’s greatest actor, and rather than flee as soon as it became clear what was happening (as Dietrich, von Sternberg, and dozens of other German and Austrian film personnel did), he decided to accept the praise of the likes of Josef Goebbels and remain behind.
Worse than that by a long shot, however, is Gerron’s fate. After an illustrious career on stage and screen, he opted to remain behind in Europe rather than emigrate to America, despite invitations and pleas from von Sternberg and Peter Lorre. He fled to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis – but as soon as they occupied the Netherlands, he was sent to a concentration camp. The Nazis made a propaganda film about how good the conditions were at Theresienstadt, starring Gerron; they very likely made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, to borrow from Don Corleone, and forced him to appear in the film. Thereafter, he was transferred to Auschwitz and killed immediately.
It’s all so sad and horrible. Scratch the surface of any number of Weimar-era films, and you’ll probably find similar stories. If you’re at all interested in reading more about the terrifying calculation behind Nazi filmmaking, I recommend my old friend Steven Bach’s Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. You think Gerron’s story is bad, just wait till you read about Tiefland.
Back to the original point of this post: The Blue Angel is excellent. For Germany’s first sound film, it’s unbelievably sophisticated in its use of sound, far more than the first talkies to come out of Hollywood. Indeed, far more than some talkies to come out of Hollywood in 1930. All the tragic backstory tends to be rather neglected, since this film marks the first collaboration between a great director and his greatest muse. But what a collaboration it is, and what gorgeous things the future had in store for them.