CRITICS AGREE that The Blue Angel (1930) is a classic, but usually for misleading reasons. They see it as a masterpiece of German Expressionism, detailing the complete degradation and ultimate death of a bourgeois hero through his descent into the sex-and-violence filled world of the lower classes. The allure of a cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich) leads Professor Rat (Emil Jannings) from the comfortable, orderly existence and, to complete the Expressionist myth as practiced in German movies, subverts his normal conduct until he becomes an object of the townpeople's scorn. The economic theme in this plot, closely related to the real and feared decline of the German middle classes in the 20's, satisfyingly gives American film critics one of the few social facts in their consciousness. No wonder they include they include Josef von Sternberg's first sound film with the works of Lang, Murnau, and others.
But despite his name, Sternberg, born in New York, had directed his nine previous films in America and after 1930 made thirteen more with which Blue Angel is completely consistent. It is true that Blue Angel is his most German work; so Scarlet Empress is similarly his most Russian and Morocco his most Arabic.
Thus the German myth's appearance in Blue Angel makes it seem an Expressionist film. But the weight of this material, the subject of the film, should not obscure our view of Sternberg's treatment of that material, for it's his treatment that is crucial to the film's meaning, especially for Jannings and Dietrich.
The first scene establishes the peaceful, orderly life of Jannings in his apartment. The room where he EATS breakfast is deep and flooded with light. When he sits down to eat, however, the camera a few feet above his head seems to lock him into his chair, between the curved table-top before him and the gleaming surface of a globe behind. While cracking an egg he whistles to his canary; hearing no answer, he rises and goes to the cage. His head fills half the frame; the cage, the other half. His landlady comes in, takes the dead bird, and saying "no more singing" throws it into a Franklin stove whose open door reveals a brilliant light within. Jannings returns to his breakfast, but between the camera (now further from him) and his head a hanging lamp covers his face, obscuring it and pushing him back.
THE SCENE'S symbolic content is perfectly accessible. Such devices as the cage and the lamp, together with Sternberg's handling of depth and sets, set up a pleasant and very restricted environment out of which Jannings' character develops. But the same symbols have a deeper meaning which, through their integration into Sternberg's dramatic and visual scheme, establishes the pattern of the entire film. In this system the attraction of light is a crucial motivation of personal behavior, and Jannings' blindness to the globe behind him appears simultaneously with a restriction of depth that expresses the limitations of his moral and perceptual experience. The sudden manifestation of death (which had existed before the film began) in the canary is part of the film's smooth flow, a dramatic event quietly noted and celebrated (in the bird's cremation). The theme of a box-like object or set whose dark exterior contains a bright space inside returns later in exteriors of the cafe which seem Expressionist: the hero wanders through the shadow-filled darkness barred from light, warmth, security. But the stove, like the stage at the end, gives the light a different meaning. Light is the core of the Romantic being, whether sexual (Dietrich, whose skin and hair shine) or metaphysical (the fire in the stove). Janning's pursuit of light, though it leads him into humiliation and death greatens his soul. Sternberg's emphasis on light-attraction over darkness' terror, on personal triumph in the middle of degradation, are Romantic themes whose Christian roots are fundamentally opposed to German Expressionism. The world Jannings inhabits in not a set of dark alleys whose monstrous shadows, projections of his own fears, try to destroy him and allow only an existential fight to the finish. The objects and people of The Blue Angel offer Jannings the possibility of continual redemption through his perception of them.
The next scene at school shows the regimentation of German education. The classroom's chaos before Jannings' arrival yields to rigidity when he sits at his desk; but a prank subverts his authority and takes him to the entertainment district that night. Here huge shadows and trap-like streets, in the finest tradition of German Expressionism, stress his fears of this setting, fears augmented inside Dietrich's dressing room by a clown and a "professor" of magic who implicitly mock Jannings' position. The impingement of settings and objects on Jannings' security climaxes in a song sequence where Jannings seated in a theater box, is distracted by a ship's nude figurehead and other sexual objects. But his attention is captured by the true embodiment of these themes, namely Dietrich, and as the film proceeds her power in his perceptions transcends all else.
JANNINGS'S reduction to poverty and dependence on. Dietrich increases--but the settings do not begin to imprison him. They remain as deep and spacious as ever. Rather, his consciousness of their distance and illusory nature grows. On their very wedding night Dietrich separates herself from Jannings with a veil. His relation to her becomes more purely visual as he goes through hell; the scope of his experience grows and grows, his vision becomes stronger and clearer as his life changes. Finally he is forced to play a clown in his home town while Dietrich backstage messes with a young actor. The ringmaster steps on stage, but Jannings refuses to come from behind the gauze curtain which partly obscures him. Sternberg cuts to high-angle shots of the rowdy audience, instead of stage-level shots which would show Jannings on the same moral plane, and then as Jannings on the same moral plane, and then as Jannings comes on stage to a terrifying long shot of the stage, rectangle of light, surrounded by the darkened hall and crowd. Despite the weight of this darkness, our attention is riveted to the personal drama on the bright stage. This finally proves the ideal and Romantic basis of Sternberg's drama as against its Expressionist surroundings.
As Jannings is forced to crow, we see Dietrich watching him, for the first time in close-up. As she sees his humiliation her cynicism takes on a new depth echoed in the final images of her singing. Jannings charges offstage to kill her; her flight is shot in high-angle, expressing the degree of freedom in even Jannings' most desperate action. Indeed, Sternberg cuts away to a doorway rather than showing Jannings being strait-jacketed. Later released, he returns to his old school desk to die the death of all Expressionist heroes. But Sternberg ends the film with shots of Dietrich, the burning Romantic figure and object, so that even in the person of the protagonists Sternberg's system triumphs over the Expressionistic scheme.