• The Blue Angel from Joseph von Sternberg is both one of cinema’s great tragic melodramas, and an exemplary early landmark of the rich possibilities of cinema mise-en-scene.
  • Most reviews focus on the colossal performances of Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich and they are not misguided in heaping an abundance of praise on the two. These are two of the towering performances of the early sound era. Jannings’ Professor Immanuel Rath is the tragic (operatic almost) arc of the film. Jannings is marvelous. He is so studied accentuating every adjustment of his glasses or the particular way he pours his coffee. His posture and appearance deteriorates (as does his soul) over the course of the film. Dietrich was the revelation in 1930. This is her first pairing with von Sternberg and their auteur/muse coupling (Morocco is also 1930). Dietrich plays Lola Lola. She is the night club singer you’d throw it all away for (and Jannings’ Rath does). Apparently Dietrich’s (who had been in quite a few films before, but never a star) brazen audition for the role survives. Her performances on stage are hypnotic. These songs almost stand up as their own film like Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).
  • The opening of the film introduces us to Professor Rath and his normal routine. Von Sternberg develops this pattern.
  • It is 18-minutes in before Dietrich shows up. She hardly wears pants the entire time and von Sternberg goes out of his way to showcase her legendary legs (up and down the spiral staircase). The shots inside the club, The Blue Angel, are where von Sternberg gets to show off. Screen obstruction and mise-en-scene design is raised to the level of art by von Sternberg in these sequences. He clutters the frame with an anchor, a fake bird. When he shoots Dietrich on stage is from a low or distanced angle like you’re in the crowd (and not always in a great seat). He even throws a massive pole divider in the middle of the frame and then wings it with netting and cloth. This is all genius- and his work precedes everyone in this arena after from Ozu to Shōhei Imamura to Guru Dutt. The film could be even better if more of the Blue Angel stage moments were captured- if it were a higher percentage of the 104-minute running time. Regardless, it is a big part of what makes this film a masterpiece and anyone just focusing on the two performances  will miss a significant portion of this film’s greatness.

obstructing and designing the frame- the scenes at The Blue Angel are where von Sternberg takes this to the level of cinematic art

masterful moments from The Blue Angel’s nightclub scenes

Reinhold Bernt plays The Clown. He is silent if you pay attention he watches and stalks around in the background as Professor Rath moves in on Lola Lola (or vice versa). He’s incensed- yet he’s given no lines and no name. He is part of the décor, and he’s a giant flair of a symbolic foretelling of what’s to come for Rath.

  • The next sequence von Sternberg shows Rath back in his routine. Von Sternberg uses the same shot of the crowded rooftops from the opening as well as Rath getting out of bed, getting his breakfast, and again with the passage of time with the automation clocks and then eventually the classroom. Von Sternberg has set the form of routine like Jarmusch would here. This is the unfortunate story of a man coming apart—his decline—and showing his previous routine is part of that theme and variation. Later his empty bed is shown in the morning, his routine is disrupted. Rath wakes up in Lola Lola’s room.

There is a glorious German expressionistic alley at the 36-minute mark with the lantern, the puddle, and the buildings on both sides at askew angles almost colliding. Von Sternberg would repeat this shot at the 103-minute mark.

At the 53-minute mark Dietrich is back on stage with the famous shot of her holding her leg singing “Falling in Love” with the bird and anchor obstructing and decorating the frame.

  • It is not all about the night club scenes for the mise-en-scene… even in the classroom the comic drawings of Rath by the students are looming over him on the chalk board.
  • At the 67- minute mark in a sublime shot, von Sternberg’s camera backpedals in the classroom to reveal Rath is all alone.

This is a study on humiliation- she laughs at his proposal and at the 73-minute mark the eggs with his rooster call- a cuckold. Jannings devastates without a word of dialogue as he puts on the clown suit himself. He has transformed.

  • The Blue Angel also works as a parable, a lesson on temptation and sexuality. All of Lola Lola’s song lyrics are basically warning signs or siren songs predicting what’s going to happen and sure enough, Rath has become the clown from their first meeting.  She is on with Mazeppa as Rath comes back home to his home town and The Blue Angel for the final, ultimate display of degradation.
  • The shot at the 67-minute mark with the camera retreating in the classroom to reveal that he is all alone is brilliantly repeated as the final scene.
  • It was filmed twice, once in English and once in German- the German version is the one to seek out
  • A masterpiece