Star: Emil Jannings
Sound arrived in Hollywood early, Al Jolson telling us that we ain't heard nothin' yet as far back as 1927, but it took a little longer in the rest of the world where silent films continued to be produced even past the mid thirties. In Germany, which mastered much of the visual style that would later define classic Hollywood, Fritz Lang did truly amazing things with sound in his 1931 masterpiece, M, but the first major German sound film came a year earlier, with Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. It stars Emil Jannings, an important stage actor who made his way to film as early as 1914 and featured heavily in F W Murnau's films of the twenties, including Faust, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe. With other major roles in films like Varieté, Waxworks and Othello behind him, it could hardly have been surprising when he was awarded the very first Oscar in 1929, ahead of the ceremony, as Best Actor for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command.
Yet Jannings is little known today, not least because he went back to his native Germany when Hollywood converted to sound and his thick accent killed his career there, only to actively make Nazi propaganda pictures for Josef Goebbels, but that's not the only reason that when people seek out The Blue Angel, they're not coming for Emil Jannings. His co-star, whose name didn't appear above the credits, gave perhaps her most iconic and memorable role here, though she would go on to give many more over the decades to come. She's Marlene Dietrich, as cabaret singer Lola Lola, and they're still spoofing that performance today. After this film, for which she shot both English and German versions, she would be whisked away to Hollywood to appear opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco. The rest is history. However good Jannings is as portly college professor Dr Immanuel Rath, and he is very good indeed, she's the main reason people watch today.
To highlight how important she is here, we see her first, albeit in the form of a poster, but then we're whisked away to Dr Rath's classroom for some subtle humour as he attempts to teach a student to pronounce the word 'the'. He also discovers that many of his class sneak off at night to visit the Blue Angel, a club where women sing and dance in scanty attire, and where naughty postcards are readily available of the popular talent. Naturally Dr Rath takes it upon himself to investigate and complain to Lola Lola that she's corrupting his students. Dietrich is younger here than I've ever seen her, a little plumper too and certainly higher pitched with her initial singing voice. She's more than a match for him though, as won't come as a surprise to anyone, even before they've seen how much of a fuddy duddy bachelor Rath is. He doesn't stand a chance and she steals the film from under Jannings with wicked smiles, careful poses and exotic charm.
He isn't the same again, now as unsure of his carefully cloistered world as Lola is sure of her wild one. When he goes back the next night to return the pair of knickers his students had sneaked into his pocket and apologise for his unseemly conduct, she plays with him with a sly grin. He's putty in her hands. How Jannings kept such a straight face I have no idea. How I han't realised how hilarious this film is I have no idea. I always thought it was a musical drama. There's plenty of drama while we laugh and smile though, Rath even sending Lola into stunned silence when he springs to life to defend her in her dressing room. This film began slowly in a college classroom ruled by a staid professor who looks older than Jannings's 46 years and we wonder what we're about to watch. How can this story reconcile with what we expect from Dietrich? Yet the next we realise, it springs into life so effectively that we hardly keep up for grinning in admiration.
There's a lot of technique in play here. Being such a fan of M, I couldn't help but notice the use of sound, which is often used in similar ways, though not so integrally to the plot. There is music and there are songs, not just as entertainment, but to set the scene and underline the tone. At the Blue Angel, the raucous music often starts and stops with the opening and closing of doors. The place is a triumph of set decoration, unlike any club I've seen on film, with textures that are palpable. The atmosphere seeps off the screen, not just the debauched nature of the place but the lackadaisical way they change the sets on the tiny stage and cycle through performers. The troupe is a travelling one but they begin and end at the Blue Angel and they fit there as if they never left. The troupe's manager and conjurer looks like the Penguin and there's an awesomely sad clown who wanders around as if sleepwalking. He's always in frame, joyously doing nothing.
Of course Dietrich has much to do with that atmosphere. She's the focal point of the show, but she adds so many little touches that make it feel like she'd been doing this forever. She pauses between verses to chug down a glass of beer and rearranges her knickers in the doorway. She's as textured as the place that hosts her. It's the real beginning of the Marlene Dietrich we'd watch over the decades: the woman of two contrasting halves, the delightful lady and the whore who could outdrink and outswear any of us. She's a joy to watch, even when she isn't singing Falling in Love Again, but by the end of the film Jannings amazingly steals the picture back from her, as Rath descends into the grotesque, far enough to truly shock us. In the end, the story really is about him: the difference between the Rath we see at the beginning and the Rath we see at the end is the result of a traumatic story that fills us with as much sadness as joy.
Jannings was the star, but he was a star already. Dietrich was nobody when she was cast, taking the role given to Brigitte Helm, of Metropolis fame, when that actress ceased to be available; but she left it a star and she never looked back. In historical context, she created a template for the liberated professional woman that must have been a major influence on the depiction of women in the precode era of Hollywood and beyond, not only in the power that woman can have but the way in which she chooses to wield it. She's the catalyst for Dr Rath's fall in the story, Rath seeing her as an ideal woman but discovering that fantasy doesn't translate to reality. She's the reason why the film was often heavily recut too, many censors unable to deal with Lola's raw sensuality. The Nazis banned it as soon as they took power but Hitler viewed it often in his private cinema. There's much to read into that, not only that Rath could be a metaphor for interwar Germany.
Heinrich Mann wrote the source novel and the Nazis banned everything with his name on it, yet it wasn't a deliberate attack on them. Originally published in 1905 as Professor Unrat, it was an attack on the bourgeoise German education system of the time, exposing the double standards of its lead character. In German, the word 'rat' means 'advice', but Rath's students satirise him as 'Prof Unrat', or 'Prof Garbage'. This adaptation removes some of the moral depth of the novel but focuses it as what director Joseph von Sternberg called 'the downfall of an enamoured man.' The more you think about it, the more it really does focus simply on the changes one man brings on himself through a succession of reactions. Marlene Dietrich is a delightful distraction, a really important one, but in the end that's all she is. This may have launched her international career in a massive way but the picture remains as the credits suggest: an Emil Jannings film.