Sunday, 20 May 2012

Falling in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with... The Blue Angel (1930)

I came to this film having recently watched Josef von Sternberg’s silent classics and been through a string of Emil Jannings’ extraordinary performances from deposed doorman to despicable devil. Two genuine greats of silent cinema, these two made this film worth watching on their own but this is also obviously about “seeing” Marlene for the first time.

Forget the endlessly re-worked and parodied images of the cabaret star astride the chair and singing of “liebe” The Blue Angel is a tough and uncompromising tale. It features two outstanding perfomances from actors at opposite ends of their careers. It’s joyful in parts and harrowing in others – it's not easy.

Directed by von Sternberg and based on Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrat, Der Blaue Engel was filmed in Germany in 1930 and is one of the first sound films of the late Weimar period.

Even though they had not enjoyed the happiest of working relationships on The Last Command, von Sternberg enlisted Jannings to star as the professor knowing exactly what he was capable of. Jannings was Germany’s biggest movie star at that time and was the go-to guy for on-screen meltdowns of tremendous force…

His Professor Rath is a naïve middle-aged man who teaches at the town’s most prestigious school where he is derided and feared in equal measure by his teenage male students. He appears to reciprocate and to be more motivated by the sheer process of education rather than the enrichment and opportunity it can bring. His best pupil is the unlucky butt of his approbrium, being not canny enough to avoid getting the blame for his classmates’ pranks and yet the Professor gives him no credit and picks him as the obvious target.

The Professor does care about his pupils’ morality though and is disturbed to discover that some of them have been frequenting a nightclub in order to enjoy more adult entertainment. He determines to catch them in the act and travels that night to Der Blaue Engel. The boys are again too quick for him and make their escape before discovery leaving their teacher to meet the object of their interest: Lola Lola (Dietrich) nighclub singer, dancer and all round entertainer.

He is immediately disarmed by Lola’s easy charm and native intelligence. She is completely free - socially and sexually - the polar opposite of his own self-imposed repression. He wants to be were she is.

One of his pupils is hidden in the room and hides a pair of Lola’s panties in his pocket. He also hears his teacher’s innocent attempts to charm Lola… The balance of power has shifted between himself and his students. He will longer be able to hold them in in fear - his authority is undermined.

But other priorities are exerting themselves and finding Lola’s clothes, the professor has reason to return the next night… when things really begin to ramp up. I’ve noticed with von Sternberg that he trusts his audience to take the logical leaps with him. He doesn’t always set out each step of events and lets us fill in the missing pieces as the bigger picture races by.

So it is, that within the space of one evening, the Professor is set to change his life forever. He gets drunk, fights for Lola’s honour, hides from the police and then boldly accuses his accuser. He finds the pupils but cares less than the night before as this will be his first night with Lola and she quickly becomes all that matters.

He returns to school late the next day to face a vicious retaliation from the boys. His headmaster feels pity for him but it is too late as this is the woman he has decided he will marry.

The process of devotion to Lola replaces his school routine and, after initially laughing at his proposal, Lola, her reasoning only hinted at, accepts his offer. The two begin married life and their reception is a joyous occasion – maybe this will all work out?

But all the while, there is the unspeaking presence of the clown who surveys events unsmiling and emotionless.

The troop heads off on tour and we seem time pass as the professor gradually runs out of purpose. Years later he is defeated and uncaring. The performers barely tolerate him and he must pay his way.

Finally he seems to have found a niche and they are invited to play again at the Blue Angel. It’s a break, an opportunity for better things but the professor does not want to return and he most certainly does not want to perform. We do not know what his act is but we feel his growing terror as it is made clear that he has to earn his keep and he must do what is necessary to help the troop and especially Lola. We see little overt emotion from Lola and we wonder what kind of feelings she has left for her husband...

They reach the club and Lola is quickly entangled with a strongman. We suspect that this is the latest of many flings but maybe the first that Rath allows himself to notice. His humiliation off stage mirrors that on-stage and he is made up as a clown and prepared for his warm welcome from old colleagues, pupils and friends…if he ever had any.

Spoilers ahead: Rath drags himself on stage where it becomes clear that he is the conjuror’s dopey assistant. This is truly horrible. He is humiliated from every direction and just as none of us can take any more, Rath snaps and runs to attack Lola as she carouses with the strongman. He attempts to strangle her but is restrained and then arrested. Lola protests that she has done “nothing wrong” which tells you all you need to know about their relationship and the person she always was... and that's not someone who can be easily judged.

Later that night Rath is released from prison and he returns back to the school to die, embracing the desk behind which he had last known something akin to peace. It’s a harrowing ending and has echoes of the fate that almost became Jannings character in The Last Laugh.

Jannings excels and acts with frightening intensity: this is a man who has wasted his love and his life. There is no way out and no way he can recover: he has reached the end.

Against him, Dietrich is open, energetic and very natural. She’s not quite the sophisticate of later films and is more playful than I expected. Her Lola is initially charming and it is only in the closing scenes that we begin to dislike her. After all, the Professor chose this path and had to find a means of existing within the troop. He’s the smart one with choices, Lola has already made just about the only one she could.

There’s also something wholesome about Dietrich’s sexuality that is again counter to her on-screen, man-eating legend... musn't confuse the actor with the roles! It's as if "Lola is good for you”…but not for ever, not if you take her too seriously.

The Blue Angel is available in a nifty two disc pack from Eureka with the English and German versions of which the latter is the best. It also includes Dietrich’s charming screen test which shows her impecable timing and sense of humour as she attempts to sing a sweet English song accompanied by an incompetent pianist - it's all there even in three minutes!

No comments:

Post a Comment