A revived "classic" film often loses some of the luster of its reputation, for once-revolutionary techniques no longer seem remarkable. A brilliant exception to this pattern, The Blue Angel anticipated modern camera developments in 1930 and after thirty years still strikes a fresh note.
Based on Heinrich Mann's novel, Professor Unrath, this film traces the romance of a Gymnasium instructors, Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) and a nightclub singer, Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Rath gives up his teaching career to marry Lola Lola; he travels with her troupe and lives off her earnings. Within a few years, Rath loses his dignity, and, finally, when he is forced to play stooge for a magic act, he loses his mind.
The pathos of the story is gripping enough even in the recent (1959) Mai Britt remake, but in the Dietrich original Joseph von Sternberg's directing enhances the impact with a telling use of symbolism and heavy reliance on he camera as narrator.
Sternberg's task was to build Rath's character and then to destroy it. Two brief classroom sequences establish him as an orderly and pompous martinet. In both scenes, Janning strides into the room, sits down and blows his nose into a carefully folded handkerchief as if the whole process were a ritual allowed no deviation from a prescribed pattern.
Throughout these early moments, Sternberg prepares for the eventual fall. Rath gets up the first morning and discovers his canary dead. As his cook throws the corpse in the fire, his shoulders slump dejectedly. It is no coincidence that an artificial bird circles Lola Lola's head when Rath first hears her sing, nor that later on, after their first night together, her canary awakens them.
Singing is the opposite of Rath's strictured bourgeois life, and it comes to symbolize his rebellion against society. But he fails natively to distinguish between different types of singing; the voices of a boys choir streaming through an open window affect him in essentially the same way as Dietrich's contralto tone. The crudeness of his ear (that is, his immaturity) compels Rath unknowingly to choose total degradation in place of drab respectability.
Sternberg expresses these complex attitudes with practically no dialogue. He still had the silent film director's knack for telling a story with pictures. When Rath glances from Lola Lola to a nude caryatid, or gets entangled in a fishnet which trying to reach her dressing room, pages of conversation could never recreate the moment as effectively.
Sternberg is a master of milieu most of all: he clutters the stage of the Blue Angel with people, clouds, and animals. The nightclub writhes with activity. So many women are seated behind Dietrich that at first it is difficult to pick her out from her immediate surroundings. This tawdry baroque contracts heavily with the stark, antiseptic hallways at the Gymnasium. Rath has entered a new world.
Dietrich and Jannings turn in fine performances that are vital to the success of Sternberg's visual subtleties. Dietrich makes the plot plausible by injecting enough warmth into her role to justify Rath's falling in love with her. She manages to remain sympathetic until the last sequence and, even in a skirt scalloped up to the waist in front, she maintains dignity. Her singing alone is worth the price of admission. See this film before it's retired.