The first collaboration between Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg—made in Germany before von Sternberg brought her back to Hollywood—The Blue Angel is part exploitation piece, part morality tale, and, possibly, a premonition of what would ultimately become a seven-film partnership.
It’s clear from the start that von Sternberg’s camera regards Dietrich as worthy of special attention. As Lola Lola, the star attraction of a traveling nightclub revue that also includes clowns and magic, Dietrich is quite literally center stage, teasing the audience about her availability while in various states of undress. Offstage, things are equally theatrical; changing outfits at one point, Dietrich is filmed through a gauzy curtain so we can see her form in silhouette. Peeking out from behind it, she instinctively wraps the fabric around herself as if it was a dress.
Dietrich, who was already a star in Germany at the time, has a certain playfulness throughout (notice the way she exaggeratedly adjusts some of her more elaborate costumes). But her frivolity can quickly shift to boredom. In an instant, her eyes will go dark with disinterest. This is part of the tease of the audience—both the clubgoers and us. It’s not clear what to believe about Lola, except that—as she states at one point—she considers herself an artist. (Oddly, the movie character she reminded me of was Ben Gazzara’s artistically ambitious strip-club owner in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.)
Von Sternberg certainly believes in his own artistry. Embracing German expressionism (including a shot of a menacing shadow that’s a direct lift from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu), he gets a lot of mileage out of the occasional scenes set outside the club, where the buildings loom in a smoky gloom. As the main character—a respected professor (Emil Jannings) who is apoplectic over his students’ loose morals—makes his way down dark alleys to The Blue Angel, the nightclub where the students go to see Lola, the buildings curve toward him like beckoning dens of sin.
This becomes the central tension of the movie: will our good professor be corrupted by Lola and her charms? At first the film is fairly critical of the professor and the sort of hypocrisy that assumes the upper class are somehow above moral failing. Having confiscated postcards of Lola from his students, which feature actual strings of fabric as her skirt, the first thing he does when he gets home is to blow on the strings to reveal what’s underneath. Later, while backstage at The Blue Angel, he may defend Lola’s honor in the face of a sailor who wants to buy her for the night, but the glances he’s been giving her legs tell us he’s really after the same thing. He’s just more delicate about it.
Jannings, who dug into the sorrow of an underemployed doorman in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, mines similar pathos as the professor, especially after Lola agrees to marry him (for ill-defined reasons) and almost immediately begins to mistreat him. It’s then that we remember, in the opening scenes, that the professor had a songbird that died, and that Lola, when he met her, had one that still lived. Perhaps she is his songbird, in a sense, and he appreciates her as an artist as well? Perhaps his intentions are more chivalrous than we at first thought?
The movie seems to think so, for just as its sympathies shift to the professor—von Sternberg employs a devastating reverse tracking shot away from him while he’s slouched at his classroom desk after being fired—it begins to double down on a depiction of Lola as a temptress and villain. At turns cruel and indifferent, she forces him to sell the very postcards he once lusted over to the nightclub audiences he detests. Eventually reduced to playing a clown, he brings to mind another clown—emaciated, silent, always watching Lola with sad eyes—who was a near-constant presence in the background of the movie’s opening section. More than likely, he was a former lover of Lola’s, equally reduced and eventually cast aside. (Played by Reinhold Bernt, he’s nowhere to be found by the time the professor puts on the clown nose and makeup.)
And so you could accuse The Blue Angel of touting a hypocritical, retrograde morality of its own: that women are either domestic helpers (the professor has a dutiful female servant); nags (the magician manager of the troupe is continually harangued by his wife); or sexual temptresses who soil upstanding souls. The movie may also point ahead to what would happen with Dietrich and von Sternberg’s careers. He “found” her, after all, just as the professor found Lola and took her in. Yet both were ultimately defined by her, according to her terms. The films von Sternberg made without Dietrich certainly don’t hold the same critical and historical stature as the ones they made together. If von Sternberg saw Dietrich as his songbird, The Blue Angel suggests that—at the very beginning—he also sensed their future.