Friday, March 28, 2008

Blue and Angelic

The Blue Angel (German, 1929) directed by Joseph Von Sternberg

I had a real passion for Marlena Dietrich films when I was in my twenties (around the time I met R). Having seen this film again I remember clearly why. And despite the archaic message that certain women are evil temptresses who will lead to the downfall of virtuous men, I still love the film and the song that made her famous Falling in Love Again. Then again is it an archaic message? Perhaps not, this is not an uncommon view.

Marlena is such a stand out in every way. And it's not just her beauty, which is luminescent (her skin glows on screen like she is lit from within). It's the way she holds herself, her acting, her smirks of indifference, her elegance, even as the slightly trashy cabaret singer Lola Lola in a disreputable club. Did Von Sternberg deliberately choose those oafish, unattractive girls in The Blue Angel to contrast with Dietrich? Even though she is not quite the cinematic goddess that she will become in later years I think I liked her more here when she had this earthy, pretty quality that she exhibits as the unfaithful club singer with her curly dark hair, smirking bravado and slightly heavier frame.

Her acting is free of old fashioned cinematic mannerisms for the most part. Poor Emil Jannings, as the unfortunate Prof. Immanuel Rath who falls in love with her, seems to exhibit extremes of emotion that make the film viewer cringe today.

The film is based on the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat. There is a nice synopsis and some lovely pics of the film here.

Prof. Rath (sometimes mocked as Prof. Unrath by his college students - unrath meaning garbage) finds some suggestive postcards of Lola Lola on his students and takes it upon himself to investigate this seedy nightclub they have been frequenting called The Blue Angel. He barges in like a German Eliot Spitzer (and we all know how that ended) to clear the place with his moral wrath and, of course, he is immediately smitten with the lovely, flirtatious Lola Lola. This guardian of the public virtue is reduced to holding her pots of paint and makeup as she prepares for each act, slavishly watching every move that she makes as his incredulous students, hidden from his view, watch.

A mute and forlorn clown, who works in the club, watches him dolefully from the periphery, foreshadowing the professor's tragic end, a silent, bedraggled doppelganger.

Of course his night of passion leads to the inevitable degradation and fall. We see from his waking up there in her bedroom how empty and bereft his home (and therefore his life) is compared to Lola Lola's; it's a brilliant metaphor for their lives. His house is dark, cluttered, depressing, filled with dusty books, a poor little bird that died unbeknownst to its owner and a surly maid servant who remarks tartly as she throws the dead bird into the furnace,"Well, he ceased to sing long ago". As did the Professor it seems.

Lola Lola's room is bright, filled with light and lined with gorgeous, illustrated club and circus posters and a ceaselessly chirping bird. She has fresh flowers, one of which she inserts into his lapel before he leaves for school to meet his fate.

The headmaster questions his judgment (the students have told everyone at the school all that has transpired). He leaves his post immediately because the headmaster insults his "future wife". He returns to the club, proposes to the incredulous Lola Lola who is poised to leave on a tour, and they marry.

He joins her on the tour and evolves from forbidding her to sell the naughty postcards to patrons to hawking them in the clubs himself. Without occupation, he is reduced to helping her dress, putting on her stockings for her, curling her hair. The message is clear: he has become emasculated by his desire (is this not the secret fear of many men?). He loses his occupation and his self esteem.

Five years pass and the professor has literally become a clown in the act. There are echoes of Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci here but unlike Canio, the murderous, jealous husband (who too is a clown) of that opera, Rath is too degraded by his misfortunes to act.

Lola Lola becomes involved with Mazeppa (the then hugely popular German movie star Hans Albers), a "strong man", whose path they cross when they are touring. As Mazeppa attempts to seduce Lola Lola, Rath prepares for his debut as the clown. They have returned to his hometown and all of the inhabitants have turned out to witness what has become of him.

Kliepert (Kurt Gerron), the vindictive manager of the troupe, uses Rath in his magic act, deliberately humiliating him, "magically" producing eggs and then smashing them against Rath's forehead, calling him a bird brain, urging him to crow as he did on his wedding night for the amusement of the wedding guests. The howls of laughter of the crowd, the humiliation of the act, his fleeting glimpses of Mazeppa's predatory moves on Lola Lola unhinge Rath mentally. He falls into a homicidal rage and then is placed into a straitjacket and restrained overnight by the frightened onlookers.

When he is finally released he staggers back to the college and finds his place in the classroom where he was held with such esteem (or so he thought) and promptly dies there, his hands clasping the desk in a death grip only to be found by the caretaker.

It is melodramatic and overwrought and Jannings is sometimes unwatchable, but Marlena still intrigues and amazes and you are entranced once again by her.

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