One of German cinema’s first forays into talkies and shot simultaneously in an English language version, Josef von Sternberg’s tragic romance The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930) receives a worthy Dual Format rerelease this week courtesy of the Masters of Cinema series. Featuring a breakthrough performance from a young Marlene Dietrich (who went on to make six more films with von Sternberg in the proceeding five years), The Blue Angel is a supremely stylised and carefully plotted ode to cinema’s obsession with glamour and exoticism, personified through its lovesick schoolteacher protagonist Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings).
Aloof and highly disciplined, we are first introduced to Rath as he takes frühstück before classes begin, seemingly distraught at the death of his precious, caged songbird – subsequently thrown into the woodburner by his hard-nosed maid. During his first lesson, Rath struggles to compete for his student’s attention with a series of erotic photographs, originating from a commonly-frequented cabaret club known as ‘The Blue Angel’. Following his own sense of righteous ire/a piqued curiosity, Rath lays eyes upon main attraction Lola (Dietrich), a fateful moment that ultimately spells doom and disaster for the once-proud college master.
With The Blue Angel, von Sternberg delves deep into the dark heart of human obsession, with both Dietrich’s Lola and her shimmering cabaret stage, sirens drawing the hapless Rath to ruin. Though at first surly and stern, our portly lead eventually garners a great deal of audience sympathy as his overly-proud, icy exterior is swiftly melted by the incomparable performer, only to then be torn asunder by the cruel, fickle nature of the showbiz machine. Reduced to the quite literal role of a clown after being forced out of his college in disgrace, our washed-up Romeo lives out his excruciating final days chirping and cawing for his audience’s approval, watching on as his great love Lola slips between his quivering fingertips.
Though the world of stagecraft – and the destructive betrayal and rivalry that lies inherent within – has perhaps been realised more completely since (French director Marcel Carné’s masterful 1945 epic Les Enfants du Paradis immediately springs to mind), little deserves to be taken away from von Sternberg’s early-sound marvel, as impressive for its technical achievements as it is for its compelling fable of love and loss. Thankfully, UK distributor Eureka has appreciated this fact, including on this rerelease both incarnations of The Blue Angel (German and English language), an exclusive video essay, a full commentary from critic Tony Rayns and a bewitching early screen test from Dietrich herself.