- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Leave A Comment