Directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1930, The Blue Angel introduces us to an aging bachelor named Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) who leads a fairly rigid life, the kind that sees him more interested in his work than in his social life. As such, he's never wed. When he discovers some photographs taken by some of his students of a cabaret singer named Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), he quickly understands why his students might hang out in such a place. At the same time, wanting the best for them, he feels he should put a stop to this and so he finds the place that Lola performs at, a club called The Blue Angel, and heads inside to confront her about this issue.
When he finds her in her dressing room, he's surprised not only by her beauty, but by her lack of modesty. He's obviously intrigued, in love even, and the students who catch him there aren't going to let an opportunity like this pass them by. They swipe a pair of her unmentionables and slip them into the pocket of his suit coat without him realizing this. Of course, this presents him with the opportunity to return the next night to return to her what was taken, and when he shows up that second time, she's quite aware of the effect she's had on him. It doesn't take much for her to convince him to spend the night together, and he returns to class the next morning not only fashionably late, but obviously a changed man. This quickly sends Rath on a downward spiral, as he loses his career and winds up a member of the cabaret himself after marrying the woman he so quickly fell for, but his new job working as a clown for a third rate magician and performing in front of his many former students is obviously taking a toll on the man who was once held in such high esteem…
Definitely strong stuff for the era in which it was made, The Blue Angel remains an intriguing film, one loaded with cynicism and bitterness towards the world but managing to deliver that take on ‘life' with enough wit and even charm so as to never come off as abrasive. The parable aspect of the story is obvious and well-written, toying with various aspects of morality and social rules to a large degree in clever ways. We see much of this play out as character development, not only in how Rath's character evolves over the course of the film but how Lola Lola's character changes as well. Obviously Rath becomes a broken man after getting what he so desperately wants and what he wants so impulsively.
Of course, the only way for this to all really work is to make sure the performances are up to par. Jannings plays his role well, the right mix of physical acting and body language and coy delivery of his dialogue inflexed with the right tone of voice to both convince and entertain. As he breaks, he gives up on the rigid and moral lifestyle he once clung to with such resolution, it's fascinating and simultaneously amusing and tragic to watch it all happen. While the movie was meant primarily as a lead vehicle for Jannings, he would wind up playing second fiddle to Marlene Dietrich's work here, the role that would make her world famous. She's incredibly predatory here, her affections for Rath seeming to flirt with love from time to time but more often leaning towards simple amusement, if not downright indifference. She's beautiful to watch and fantastic in the role, and of course, this being an early sound picture, The Blue Angel offers the added appeal of getting to hear her as well as see her. Though the storyline doesn't quite clarify exactly why Lola Lola agrees to marry an older and somewhat slovenly teacher in the first place, leaving some of that up to us to decipher on our own isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it makes for interesting food for thought.
The film is never short on style. The influence of German Expressionism looms large in the picture which makes great use of odd camera angles and interesting contrast between shadow and light. The pacing is good, the editing clever and effective and the use of sound, though limited by the technology of the era in which the picture was made, handled quite well. Though this is one where the performances really make it, the technical side does not want for polish or flair.
The Blue Angel was released by distributors Kino Lorber back in 2012 in a single disc edition containing only the German version of the movie. As far as this reissue goes, the first disc of the two disc package we get the original German language version taken from the restoration that was done by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and on the second disc in the set we get the English language version of the movie (which appears on Blu-ray domestically for the first time with this set). The German version of the movie does run three minutes longer than its English counterpart and it is not simply a dubbed version of the movie, in fact it was shot in German and then shot again in English. There are some interesting differences between the two versions not just in terms of the dialogue but the presentation of certain scenes as well, one of the key differences being the scene where Rath confronts the headmaster, which is done in such a way as to alter the inferred reasons for his fall. There are other differences as well, of course, and it's hard to argue that the English version is the superior film (it was reportedly shot much faster than the German version) but it is a legitimate alternate take on the story and one well worth preserving.
The restored presentation of the German version, in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from 35mm archival elements and as stated, restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, looks excellent. Presented in 1.19.1, the black and white image shows good detail and contrast when you consider the age of the film and the limitations of the elements available. Some print damage obviously couldn't be eliminated but for the most part we have a clean and reasonably crisp representation of a movie fast approaching its centennial. Grain is heavy throughout, but you have to expect that and it helps to make the presentation more film like. There are no obvious issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement and outside of a few spots here and there, compression artifacts were never noticeable. The English version boasts similar traits but looks a little bit brighter than the German version but both transfers look quite nice.
The German version is presented in its original language in LPCM 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles provided in English, while the English version is also in LPCM 2.0 Mono, there are no subtitles provided for this version. Expect some noticeable background hiss to be present in both versions of the movie, though it's a little more obvious in the German version for whatever reason (likely due to the elements). Outside of that, things sound decent enough. The levels are properly balanced and there are no problems with distortion. Dialogue has decent presence and depth to it, as much as can realistically be expected, and it remains audible throughout both versions of the feature. There are no subtitles or closed captions provided for the English version of the movie.
Extras (all of which are on the second disc with the English version of the feature) include an interesting scene comparison between the two versions of the movie. While it only runs just over three minutes it does a good job of showcasing the more obvious alterations that occurred when the German movie was reshot for the English market. Additionally we get a brief minute and a half interview with Marlene Dietrich that was originally shown on Swedish television in 1971. This is complimented nicely by some concert footage in which she sings Falling in Love Again (from 1963), Lola (from1972) and You're the Cream in my Coffee (also from 1972). Dietrich pops up again in some Blue Angel Screen Test footage from 1929 that is quite interesting to see as you can get a feel for what she would bring to the role before production had really started. Obviously casting her was the right choice, it's clear even here that this was a role perfect for her style. It's also interesting to see some of her more infamous personality quirks showing up in this footage as well.
Rounding out the extras on the set are two trailers for the feature, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection.
A fine release for an interesting and important film, Kino's two disc Blu-ray edition of Josef von Sternberg The Blue Angel may not bring much of anything new to the table in terms of extras but it does include both the German and English versions of the picture in nice presentations and for that reason alone, it will be worth the double dip to some, if not all. The movie itself holds up very well though, a fantastic showcase for a talented cast and a great example of Josef von Sternberg's talents as a director as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.