Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ways of Considering The Blue Angel

Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) 1930
directed by Joseph von Sternberg starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,
Denn das ist meine Welt. und sonst gar nichts.
Das ist, was soll ich machen, meine Natur,
Ich kann halt lieben nur und sonst gar nichts.

Männer umschwirren mich, wie Motten um das Licht.
Und wenn sie verbrennen, ja dafür kann ich nicht.
Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,
Ich kann halt lieben nur und sonst gar nichts.

(I am completely tuned into loving,
that is my world and nothing else.
That is....what can I say?.... my nature!
I can merely love and do nothing else.

Men flutter around me like moths around a light
And if they get burned, well, I can't do anything about that.
I am completely tuned into loving,
I can simply love and do nothing else)
- trans. M. Brown

The Blue Angel is often regarded as a fable of the upstanding member of society brought low by the siren. This is certainly a valid reading, if also a cliched one. The lyrics to Lola-Lola's famous song (see above) belie a nonchanlance regarding the effects of her carnality which borders on amorality, and Professor Rath is burned by her flame. If the film were only this, it would be no more than a moralistic sermon, albeit an entertaining one. The Blue Angel is more than this, however, for reasons of intention by its creators, and reason of coincidence of history.

First, let us look at the reasons of intention. The main character of the story is Professor Immanuel Rath, played by the great silent film star, Emil Jannings. His last name, Rath, means 'counsel' or 'advice' in German. It is a fitting name for a man of erudition . (The title of the Heinrich Mann novel on which the movie is based, is Professor Unrath, is a pun on this name. Unrat means 'filth' or 'garbage', the name that students taunt him with.) It is Professor Rath's decline and fall that is the thrust of the story. He is the embodiment of Prussian rigor and bourgeois self-satisfaction. He marches through his world as the flaming sword of virtue and social correctness. His downfall is painful to watch. His destruction is total.

Were this merely a moral tale, Rath's fall would be tragic, and the cause of that downfall would be depicted as totally evil. Surprisingly, the catalyst for that fall, Lola-Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in a legend-making performance, is a beautifully nuanced character. Instead of depicting her as a mindless, oversexed hussy, the creators of the film take great care to show Lola-Lola's awareness of her effect on men. This is especially apparent in the scenes in her dressing room with the students. One senses that she is keeping her sensuality at bay. She knows her power, but doesn't use it. Of course, it is still enough to drive the boys mad. If the film followed the conventions of a moral tale, we would expect that she would unleash the full power of her attraction when Professor Rath appears on the scene to upbraid her for corrupting the morals of his students. Instead, she is mildly amused at him and continues getting ready for the act.

The surprise in this relationship happens when the Professor defends her honor before the drunken sailor. In a beautifully modulated performance by Dietrich we see how Lola-Lola is touched by his gallantry. The way she plays this scene paves the way for what otherwise would have been unbelievable: the marriage of Professor and Cabaret Singer. The intention of the film's creators to portray Lola-Lola as less than evil and the Professor as less than sympathetic undermines any interpretation of the film as a simplistic moral lesson.

The coincidences of history lead to more symbolic readings to the film. Two particular historical readings are interesting to consider.

1- When the film was released in 1930, Germany was on the verge of great upheaval. The staggering inflation of the post World War I era had crippled the country. The Weimar Repulic, which had been the government of the country, was in free-fall. Weimar-era Germany is often portrayed as a decadent society that collapsed as the Third Reich was on the rise. Professor Rath can be seen as the decaying social order that was dealt a death blow in World War I and had a long slow slide into death. In this construct, Lola-Lola can be seen as the seductive side of National Socialism which hastened the end of Weimar. Of course, the creators of the film could have no idea what was to happen in Germany in just a few years from the release of the film, but I don't believe that precludes this historical reading of the film

2- The Blue Angel is Emil Janning's first sound film. He was among the most lauded screen actors of the silent era and was hoping that this film would be an auspicious launch to the next phase of his career. Marlene Dietrich was one of the 'immortals' of the sound era. Her silent film appearances were negligible and largely forgotten. With the release of The Blue Angel she became the very definition of screen goddess. It is fascinating to watch the two characters in light of this tension. Rath, as portrayed by Janning's silent era acting style in comparison to the sound era style of Lola-Lola, as played by Dietrich. Janning's is an outsized, histrionic performance, relying on exaggerated facial expression and large physical gestures. Dietrich performance in comparison, is all about the voice and the small gesture.The acting is subtle and modulated. Of course, the grandly theatrical style of silent film quickly perished and was completely replaced by the style represented by Dietrich.

Sideline on Silent vs. Sound film acting:

It was inevitable that the silent film acting style would have died out. When sound was added, a huge artificiality of film was removed and it became more a recording of reality. The gestures and movements of the operatic silent movie style of acting had to go. Even though they were once the standard, they now were incongruous. Looking at a world as shown in a silent film is odd since one of your five senses is excluded and the sense of sight has to compensate for what is missing. Once sound comes in, the balance of the senses is back and the compensation is no longer necessary.

I think it is safe to say that the actors who survived the shift to sound are not necessarily the actors who has good voices, but the ones who knew how to scale things back, or were already naturalistic in the silent era. I'm thinking of Greta Garbo in particular. Valentino didn't have a chance. Of course, dying before sound came in precluded a success in talkies, but still he would have been a disaster.

An interesting case is Chaplin. He was a particular screen presence. The Little Tramp was so ingrained in the consciousness of the world, that when he made talking films with that character, they were essentially silent films with a soundtrack. I am thinking of Modern Times and City Lights. When he made true sound films, the Little Tramp is gone and the films are less successful.


  1. Great first post--very insightful. And nice job translating the song.

  2. Hey Mitchell --

    With the benefit of a couple of months to ponder this, I have a new appreciation of your reading of The Blue Angel. I’d need to see it again to have more confidence in this observation, but it seemed to me that what we’re really seeing dramatized in the film is a crisis of metaphysics: Prof. Rath acts under unconsidered assumptions that his Enlightenment-era values and the authority with which he propounds them are rooted in essential truth, and have a basis in what we might broadly call “reality.” That ain’t the case, as the film’s narrative brutally demonstrates.

    It seems to me that much of the nuance of Dietrich’s performance consists simply in keeping track of the LAYERS of performance she’s engaged in, and in making them apparent AS performance. Here she’s an actor playing an actor (of a sort), reminding us that Lola’s seductiveness -- which ostensibly drives the narrative -- is an act (and more mundanely and significantly, a job), and by extension that it resides more in the perceiving consciousnesses of her various audiences than it does in her. (To the extent, that is, that it can be said to reside anywhere at all: Lola’s seductiveness isn’t essential -- nothing is -- and it’s less a performance than it is an act of interpretation on her audience’s part.) Lola’s audience may regard her as an empty signifier -- a screen to project their lustful or chivalrous fantasies on -- but as you suggest, Dietrich makes it clear that she’s an individual, too, by registering surprise and amusement at the behavior of the men around her. Lola isn’t bad, or immoral, or amoral: she’s just doing her job, performing, playing a game . . . obeying the first rule of improvisational performance, which is to never deny her fellow performers’ overtures, to always say yes. Lola just doesn’t recognize any boundaries to the stage: everything is performance. What else would it be?

    As you point out, the film seems to be a prescient warning about the collapse of traditional structures of power and authority and the coming rise of new structures which are frankly arbitrary about how and where they locate value. As much hand-wringing as the right does over the creeping scourge of postmodern relativism, it’s not typically the left that surges into the void when old systems disintegrate: it’s the sleek ahistorical novelty of fascism, which maintains that truth is not discovered by the wise but manufactured by the powerful. In this sense, The Blue Angel is rather more timely today than I’d prefer.

  3. First, thanks for such a careful reading of my little post!

    From what you write, it seems like the song quoted above is really apt for the film, and even tips the movies hand somewhat, vis-a-vis Lola-Lola's character.

    I fear what you say may be true about its relevance for today. Does that make Obama the Rath of Today? Yikes!