WHO SUFFERS SO WELL AS EMIL JANNINGS? The Swiss actor, born towards the tail of the 19th century, was already an experienced talent by the advent of cinema and became one of its great early stars in both Germany and the USA, where he received the first Academy Award for Best Actor. His expressive features and bulky frame made him a memorable force in such roles as Mephisto in ‘Faust’, but Jannings was also one of the first film actors to master the much plainer plight of the Everyman. Certainly other actors and films depicted humble heroes (1927’s ‘Sunrise’ being an early standout), but the leads in such dramas were often doe-eyed damsels and wasp-waisted heartthrobs—glamorous stars playing dress-up as plebeians, in other words, whom audiences loved to see masquerading closer to their own levels of society. Jannings, meanwhile, was a more credible man who filled these roles great and small as completely as he wore the costumes themselves: heaving the coarse wool of a porter’s coat over his broad shoulders and stooping beneath it, wedging his face behind a pair of pince-nez, or lugubriously drawing a clown’s black eyeliner down his cheek like a tear. What’s more, Jannings could complete such transformations over the course of a single film and be believable at both extremes, from the infinite satisfaction of self-absorbed bourgeoisie into the pits of debasement and ostracism. He catalogued agony and ecstasy as doled out by the same hand—society—which weighs more heavily upon the common man than escapist fantasies of star-crossed lovers or swashbuckling adventures. In short, Jannings made us feel empathy instead of just pity or idolatry, as we often would for more glamorous stars.
Perhaps there is no greater example of this fall from on high than ‘The Blue Angel’, where director Josef von Sternberg follows the officious Professor Rath through an unpredictable love affair with a speakeasy singer called Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich in a legendary/scandalous breakout role). Although we leave the professor at film’s end in much the same setting as we found him—at the head of his classroom, the camera nestled amidst the desks like a pupil awaiting instruction—the man himself could not be more different.
This role’s brilliance (and its challenge) is that Herr Professor Rath is not much of a sympathetic character to begin with: a fulsome lecturer, stodgy, disrespected by his students and tolerated by his housekeeper, he seems to strut through life in a trench of his own making, head held high but still below ground. When he meets Lola—unabashed, comfortable, fluid, unwilling to butt heads but always ready with a jibe—he is beside himself and incapable of bluster; the soapboxes strapped to the bottom of his feet are completely undercut and he falls for her at once. That so regimented a man could be so swiftly seduced by a burlesque strumpet may seem a little contrived, but we must recall the professor’s susceptibility to vice from the outset: he confiscates his students’ racy postcards and guiltily indulges in them later when assured of privacy. His indignant preening disguise a loneliness and confusion about the world that he never resolves, which we can infer from the brief but cutting vignette concerning his canary at the film’s outset.
Jannings portrayed a similarly dramatic transformation six years earlier in ‘Der Letzte Mann’ (The Last Laugh), but ‘The Blue Angel’ is bolder twice over. Firstly: its very subject matter, which displays unabashedly the ‘loose morals’ of the era’s youth as well as a broad cross-section of society that revels indulgently and immoderately instead of ascribing vice to a select few ‘bad eggs’ or merely the indigent. The patrons of ‘The Blue Angel’ are not quite celebrated for these flaws, though, nor are they presented as gleeful debauchers impugning sacred writ. Rather, they are merely human: some lonely, some thrill-seekers, some drunk, some simply curious.
The other quality that sets ‘The Blue Angel’ apart from ‘The Last Laugh’—and also may have done it no favors with the censors, already aghast at its prurience—is that the script does not shy away from a gloomy ending, quite unlike ‘The Last Laugh’s half-apologetic turnaround that plops an unsightly dollop of sweets atop otherwise grim fare. In a mordant twist, the more we come to like Professor Rath the less satisfied he is with himself.
Given its dour conclusion, one might be tempted to interpret the film as a cautionary tale brandishing Christian prudence as an aegis against the devil’s licentiousness. But this would be too simplistic a view. As aforementioned, Rath is no irreproachable man before his ‘fall’, and the fates of other moths that flock to the Blue Angel’s flame are not all immolations in hellfire (however tempting the metaphor might be). Besides, Rath himself is the one character in the film who preaches morality and his end is far from rosy. What ‘The Blue Angel’ shows instead is simple in theory, difficult in practice: confronting human desires for companionship—and how poor we are at earning it.
Jannings is the perfect crucible for this ambivalence, particularly when cast alongside Dietrich. Certainly an iconic beauty of Hollywood, in ‘The Blue Angel’ she appears less the timeless star and more the woman and the flesh. No doubt some of this is due to the reality, for it was only after this film that she traveled to and succeeded in Hollywood. With almost careless ease Lola teases Rath out of his stuffy suit and into the clown’s collar, a pivot which the film brings about rather swiftly for how much weight it bears at the very center of the plot. This transition is brilliantly managed, though, having patiently developed the rapport between Rath and Lola long before the hot tong of a hair curler burns the days on a calendar to ash until years have suddenly passed. Then, Rath is called ‘Professor’ as a mockery instead of in deference.
This decline itself is not Rath’s endgame, as it might have been in a more nihilistic script shot in later decades. Indeed, the final act that follows Rath tottering crazily through the streets all the way back to his classroom is a crucial one, justified by the positioning of Rath as a professorial figure from the film’s outset. The viewer perceives the complete cycle in this way, given that the camera’s placement identified us as a member of his class and reinforces our role as a voyeur throughout the film. But the road to this denouement does plod on a little uncomfortably and excessively, blunting somewhat the blow of its otherwise quite eloquent final shot, itself a reprisal of the first half’s conclusion. To some degree this pacing is deliberate—recasting the same experience from several perspectives and epochs—but the results are sometimes pedantic and sometimes simply wearying: by the last time we hear Lola sing her signature song, she seems as bored of it as we are.
Yet we must also recall that this was 1930, a scant few years after the first talking picture was released. The flow of dialogue is occasionally abrupt—as if waiting to fill the spaces left by absent title cards—but once under way is both natural and candid, particularly for a film that spends so much time on and around the stage. In a film like ‘Children of Paradise’, masterpiece though it is, the actors always seem to be performing, as much to each other as to their adoring crowds in the theater and us behind the camera lens. But in the dingy wings of ‘The Blue Angel’ there is no such pretense.