Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Blue Angel (1930)

By Eric Jessen 8/11/09

The Blue Angel is combination of silent expressionism - stacked pointy houses (reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), dim street corners, every frame suffocated by darkness grasping for light, featuring Emil Jannings (of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Faust's fame) - and a Josef Von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich (of Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress) sensuous, sultry, libidinous talkie. One star emerged and the other had his final hurrah. Emil Jannings got top billing, the silent German film star famous for an overacting lively visage, brooding, mournful as the sad sack in The Last Laugh. But Marlene Dietrich with just one sarcastic, baiting glance, strutting around in her panties singing “Falling in Love Again” stole the show.
Jannings plays Emmanuel Rath, a craggy college professor: sour, abrupt and authoritative. He cracks the whip on his rowdy students with a sadomasochists' delight. When he learns from his teacher's pet that his students spend their nights enjoying a peep show at The Blue Angel, he charges down to the Vaudevillian club to confront them. Rath wades through a nylon sheath and a fog of smoke to arise in the dressing room where he meets Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Her casual fleshiness and smoldering voice scream raunchy depraved sex (without love or commitment). She prances around the room, toys with the professor, showing a leg, pouting then bubbling (like Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box) with a mocking callous but playful tone. She effortlessly breaks his rough exterior and he immediately becomes her lap dog. Rath and Lola Lola get married, which seems somewhat implausible although at a few moments Lola shows signs of compassion for Rath. He reluctantly starts traveling with the bawdy show and eventually is peddling lewd pictures of his wife and getting dressed in full clown costume having eggs cracked over his head. Rath mopes and stays silent as he watches his wife sexually taunt and humiliate him, absorbing sorrow and pain, forever trapped under the Dietrich spell (reminding me of the torturous ending to “Caligari”).
In The Blue Angel I witnessed the perfect combination of two remarkable landmarks. Marlene Dietrich burst onto the screen as tempting and marvelous as ever and her salacious voice (in an English or German version) for the first time tantalized the ear. She and Josef Von Sternberg were beginning to master their craft. And at the same time I was pleased to see Emil Jannings make one last expressive silent sad face.

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