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Marlene Dietrich was the first and only movie siren that captured my imagination as a college-age movie fan; as it happened people remarked that my girlfriend of the time looked quite a bit like her. Dietrich seems to have begun as a saucy variation on Greta Garbo, bursting with the humor, daring and shock value of Weimar nightlife. We were surprised to learn that she led a double existence, secretly enjoying the role of hausfrau in her off hours. Without getting into the von Sternberg - Svengali bit that serves as patter about her most profound professional relationship, Dietrich seems to have kept control of her image in every detail, way into her old age. On no one else do painted eyebrows seem more natural. She was a moody, bedroom-eyed vamp in her Paramount classics. Later on she maintained an aura of glamour even when playing dark characters, as in A Foreign Affair or Touch of Evil.
Dietrich's most famous film was an Ufa-Paramount co-production filmed in both German and English language versions. When it premiered in Berlin, the star was already on her way to Hollywood. Curiously, Paramount decided to make The Blue Angel her second American release. They thought America might not cozy up to The Blue Angel's plump, vulgar music hall performer Lola-Lola. Josef von Sternberg first put her through a crash diet to play a more Garbo-like role in the famous Morocco.
Kino released a Blu-ray of the German version of The Blue Angel just last year. Now it is back in a 2-Disc Ultimate Edition set with the English-language version. Josef von Sternberg's tale of romantic degradation was never difficult to see, but not so long ago it was nearly impossible to see intact. 16mm prints in high school and college were Nth-generation eyesores with blurry subtitles that didn't match the words being spoken on screen. The main titles were replaced. At least one copy I showed in the UCLA dorms dropped the film's tragic finish, ending instead on a suspicious sequence of Marlene Dietrich doing a reprise of her main theme song. I remember understanding the story only after reading a published film script -- which itself apparently did not reflect the original version.
At the UCLA film school another wrinkle entered the mix. The then-new UCLA Film Archive had custody of Paramount's nitrate film collection, which included a perfect copy of the English-language version of the movie. The clarity of the images made the 16mm German copies look like mud. But the film's overall impact was different. Seeing Marlene Dietrich stumble through her English dialogue took the edge off her exoticism. Even the song lyrics were in English. The editing wasn't nearly as careful, nor the performances. Some of the sexual attitudes were toned down as well.
"Mr. Artistic" Josef von Sternberg was not popular with his crews but his personal photographic style set the tone for Paramount's house "look" of the 1930s. His melodramas The Last Command and The Docks of New York soaked the silent screen in atmosphere, packing the frame with shadowy figures and smoke-filled décor. Acclaimed German actor Emil Jannings came to Hollywood and worked well with von Sternberg, so when sound arrived von Sternberg went abroad for the opportunity to work for producer Erich Pommer, the man behind the most artistically astute films coming out of Germany. At the Ufa studios von Sternberg met the ambitious actress Marlene Dietrich, one of the century's most intoxicatingly attractive women. Determined to stop losing plum roles to stars like Brigitte Helm and Louise Brooks, the married Dietrich was soon engaged in a passionate love affair with the demanding director. He apparently found in her the perfect love object for the movies he wanted to make.
The Blue Angel is the "old story" of a man brought low by passion. The middle-aged and pompous Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) deludes himself that he projects an authoritative image, when his students consider him an old fool. Most of them frequent The Blue Angel, a portside music hall that books attractive and available showgirls. The romantically inexperienced catches his boys with racy photos of the sexy attraction Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and goes to see for himself. Patronized and bamboozled by showman Kiepert (Kurt Gerron), Rath is fascinated by Lola Lola and falls deeply in love with her. The knowing showgirl toys with him but not in an unkind manner. Unaware that Lola Lola takes casual lovers, Rath defends her honor against a drunken sea captain. News reaches his schoolmaster, and Rath's career as a teacher comes to an end. Lola Lola laughs out loud at his proposal of marriage but accepts, as he's genuinely sweet. Now a part of Kiepert's road company, the professor slips into a fog of contradictory emotions. He wants Lola Lola all to himself but to earn his keep must sell photos of her. Kleipert finds humiliating ways to work him into the act. Lola Lola begins to realize that Rath is a liability to her freewheeling lifestyle. Kiepert sees a big opportunity when the company is re-booked into The Blue Angel: he can promote Rath as the town's own famous native son. Shamed, dazed and confused by his utter loss of self-respect, Rath allows himself to be costumed as a clown, to be the idiot-patsy in one of Kiepert's comedy routines. His humiliation goes too far when Lola Lola takes the handsome new strongman Mazeppa (Hans Albers) as her lover. In the middle of his pathetic performance, Rath catches them on one side of the stage, kissing.
The Blue Angel is yet another permutation of the dramatic concept that Women are the Root of all Evil. German literature, plays and films returned frequently to misogynistic stories of heartless vamps and monsters that destroy decent men. The fantasy Alraune promoted the idea that man-killer women have no souls. G.W. Pabst's classic Pandora's Box aimed to counter the notion of a predatory female by making its heroine Lulu an innocent who falls prey to the desires of men. Unfortunately for Ms. Brooks, the role only led to other movies about women receiving terrible punishments simply for being desirable.
Note that the tempting sex-object women in these stories are given names that evoke the sensation of sex - Lulu, Lola Lola. The character in Heinrich Mann's book had the less erotic-sounding name Rosa Frölich. Josef von Sternberg's silent Docks of New York had been honest about the reality of the low life on the wharf, but at Ufa he was allowed to fully investigate the subject. On the gaudy stage is a row of cheap, tubby-looking showgirls that really look like dullard prostitutes. Only two or three of them try to sing and some look stone drunk. Lola Lola is the main attraction, the girl whose image is on the schoolboys' postcards. She leers at the audience and belts out suggestive lyrics between gulps of beer. Her costumes are unbelievably tacky. Skirts are under-wired to stand up in front or back, revealing her underwear; a foolish half-hoop skirt is meant to show a backlit silhouette of her legs, and when she turns around reveal that she's only wearing silk knickers. There's nothing ladylike about Lola Lola. She stands with her legs wide, her hands on her hips, proudly proclaiming her freedom to be a sex object.
For all I know, the nightclub in The Blue Angel could be a von Sternberg fantasy that never existed. Who cares? Fans familiar with Marlene Dietrich's Hollywood work are surprised to see her in this role. Not yet the sleek creature with the hollow cheeks and painted eyebrows, Dietrich is 5' 6" of warm, inviting femininity, with torpedo-like thighs and a plump, well-fed face. Although it is clear that Lola Lola sleeps with Professor Rath, it's hardly a conventional relationship. She tells him that he's handsome, and when he beams with shy approval she begins cooing and purring and pinching his face as if he were a baby. German never sounded this erotic in language class -- it's as sexy as hell. Marlene Dietrich would later become a much more polished performer, but the natural appeal of this Berlin seducer was never stronger.
The Professor can't possibly hold Lola Lola, so we aren't surprised when his life beomes a nightmare. At his wedding Rath plays the rooster to Lola Lola's hen, making cock-a-doodle-doo noises that will later become the screams of a cuckold. Although everybody in Kiepert's company is 'normal', we can't help thinking that Rath has joined a troupe of Freaks: "gooble gobble, one of us!" The show's clown constantly interrupts Rath in the crowded backstage spaces, fixing him with plaintive stares before moving on. The clown is of course another harbinger of doom, a mirror image of things to come. Prof. Rath eventually takes the clown's place, just as Tyrone Power becomes the Geek in the equally horrifying Nightmare Alley. Director von Sternberg skillfully leads us to the moment when Lola Lola and the strongman Mazeppa engage in a brazen kiss, right where Rath can see. Mazeppa is forcing the issue; he's already been to her bedroom and Rath didn't get the message.
Watching the pitiful Rath broken into pieces by his hard experience is riveting drama. Memories of Jannings' doorman in his earlier The Last Laugh come to mind, as Rath throws away his social station. The unpleasant truth is that he was a highly ineffective teacher anyway. Von Sternberg's final shot is an inexplicably tender image of Doom.
Von Sternberg's film refuses to insist on a punitive moral, despite the tragedy that results when Rath falls in love with the wrong woman. The song lyric goes as follows: "Men flutter to me like moths around a flame, but when their wings burn I know I'm not to blame." Lola Lola makes her living by exciting men and presumably sleeping with some of them, but they come to her. She's a free agent, smart enough to realize that she must hold something in reserve: most women in her profession are cruelly mistreated. She gives Rath every opportunity to leave. She marries him because it pleases her, not for the usual reason that he has money. With his misplaced chivalry and emotional defenselessness, Rath is a disaster waiting to happen. When she cheats on him with Mazeppa, the only person even remotely surprised is the clueless Rath.
Dietrich runs away with The Blue Angel, even though it is structured as Emil Jannings' star vehicle. Also standing out in the cast are Kurt Gerron and Rosa Valetti, familiar faces from Weimar cinema. Valleti had owned and performed in nightclubs and sings part of a song. Gerron's personal story is horrifying. The Nazis allowed him to keep working, fitfully, right up until the war began. He was eventually given the job of making a propaganda film falsifying the treatment of Jews in 'detention camps'. Gerron thought he might help improve conditions for his captive actors, but promptly after the film's completion the Nazis sent both him and his wife to be murdered in Auschwitz.
As for Emil Jannings, he became a fervent Nazi: if you recall, he's represented (and apparently incinerated) in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Marlene Dietrich joined the German expatriate community in Hollywood, renouncing all things Nazi and Hitler. Original author Heinrich Mann was the older brother of the celebrated Thomas Mann. His criticism of Germany led to his leaving the country during the 1933 exodus of leftist artists and intellectuals. Mann was a special focus of Nazi book-burnings, including his book "Professor Unrat".
Kino Classics' Ultimate Edition of The Blue Angel is a two-disc Blu-ray set combining both versions of von Sternberg's classic. The German cut is an exceptionally good transfer of film elements in good condition. The improved image reveals that some "blurred" scenes were actually filmed through diffusion filters, and are intended to look soft. The occasional soft haloes around backlit objects are an intentional visual effect. In other words, the picture now looks more like other von Sternberg Paramount classics, his late silents and the Dietrich classics. Unlike American studio-factories that forced European talent to adapt to house styles, Ufa's Erich Pommer encouraged von Sternberg to bring his personal style with him.
We also get a better chance to appreciate the fairly primitive soundtrack. Editorially, the sound work is nowhere near as sophisticated as in Fritz Lang's "M". It's distracting to hear loud background noise from the club disappear the instant someone closes the thin door to Lola Lola's dressing room. Just the same, the quality of the recording is excellent. The microphones pick up Dietrich's natural murmuring as she teases Jannings. The antique sound of the music is charming -- the composer is Friedrich Hollaender. Following Dietrich to Hollywood, he continued to collaborate with her while composing music for dozens of films.
As Rath passes a prostitute on the way to the nightclub, we also hear a bit of "The Faithful Hussar", the old folk tune sung by Suzanne Christian (Christiane Kubrick) at the end of Paths of Glory. It's interesting, the details that stick in the mind after seeing a truly classic film.
The English-language version looks only slightly less perfect than the German. It's not a full re-shoot. Key dialogue scenes are restaged but others where the sense of the scene is clear are alternate German takes not used in the original. Some camera setups are a bit different, and some scenes are faster-paced. Dietrich is okay in English but certainly not fluent, and her songs have a different appeal when translated. "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt" seems much more earthy than the simply romantic "Falling in Love Again."
This Ultimate Edition carries extras that Kino's previous Blu-ray did not. A comparison feature puts a classroom scene from both versions side-by-side, proving that in the English cut alternate takes were used even for non-dialogue scenes. We also see Dietrich's screen test, where she pretends to interrupt herself while singing (not very well) to a piano accompaniment. A Dietrich interview is far too short, but we do see a couple of songs from later TV appearances. An image gallery and trailers are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Blue Angel Ultimate Edition Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.