“Beware of blonde women, they’re special, every one. At first you may be unaware, but something is definitely there. A little hanky-panky can be fun, but from their clutches you’d better run.”
‘The Blue Angel’, directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1930, is a German tragicomedy starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. Jannings plays an academic called Immanuel Rath who, in the process of trying to catch his students attending an inappropriate nightclub, finds himself attracted to the headline act, Lola Lola played by Dietrich. His attraction turns into obsession and he finds himself sacrificing his career to be her consort, eventually becoming a clown in the cabaret and losing his mind. It’s a film the lurches effectively between the comedy of Rath’s bumbling and pompous attempts at seduction and his genuinely touching breakdown. Janning’s performance is broad and, as expected of someone who is more famous for silent films, theatrical, but Dietrich as the remote, siren-like Lola is the real powerhouse of the movie. What struck me, however, was the knowledge of what happened in Germany just a few years after the film was made. Two actors in particular had different paths under the Nazi state: Jannings become a loyal party member (there is a photograph online of the actor with Himmler) and acted in a number of propaganda pieces, whilst Kurt Gerron, who played the troupe’s leader, was a Jew who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt concentration camp where he was forced to appear in pro-Nazi films. He was then taken to Auschwitz where he was murdered. The presence of the two actors, in the film each vying for power within the performance troupe, each with a similar style of acting, is poignant and unsettling. It’s a light movie with a steel heart: the fate of Rath is genuinely disturbing, but not as disturbing as the fates of the actors themselves.
Would I recommend it? Yes – watch in a double bill with ‘Cabaret’ for a film in which the liberal aspects of the Weimar republic aren’t presented as poisonous.