(The Blue Angel)
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production: Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft Studios (UFA), Berlin; black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes; length: 2920 meters. Released 31 March 1930, Germany; American version released 3 January 1931 by Paramount. Filmed (concurrently in English and German) in late winter of 1929, UFA studios, Berlin.
Producer: Erich Pommer; scenario: Josef von Sternberg, Robert Liebmann, and Karl Vollmoeller; dialogue: Carl Zuckmayer, from the novel Professor Unrath by Heinrich Mann; photography: Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger; editor: Sam Winston; sound effects: Fritz Theiry; production design: Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler; music: Friedrich Holländer; lyrics: Robert Liebmann; music played by: The Weintraub Syncopators.
Emil Jannings (
); Marlene Dietrich (
); Rosa Valetti (
); Hans Albers (
); Kurt Gerron (
); Karl Huzar Puffy (
); Reinhold Bernt (
); Rolf Mueller (
); Roland Verno (
); Karl Bolhaus (
); Hans Roth (
); Gerhard Bienart (
); Robert-Klein Loerk (
); Wilheim Diegelmann (
); Ilsu Fuerstenbeg (
); Edward V. Winterstein (
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* * *
When Josef von Sternberg arrived in Berlin in the autumn of 1929, his career was tottering. The two years since his 1927 success with Underworld had been spent making box-office failures in imitation of his pioneering gangster film, now out-dated by the coming of sound. A brief high-spot, the production of The Last Command with Emil Jannings, had led to his providential invitation from Erich Pommer of UFA to visit Germany and direct Jannings in his first sound picture.
A drama about Rasputin was suggested, partly to placate UFA backer Alfred Hugenberg's right-wing sensibilities, but von Sternberg finally chose a novel by Heinrich Mann written in 1905 as an attack on the period's reactionary politics. An upright professor is seduced by a nightclub singer, becomes a pawn of her political friends, but finally fights off their influence and re-establishes himself in the community. Professor Unrath was essentially a protest against the false morality and corrupt values of the German middle class, but in it von Sternberg saw the possibility of a film far closer to his personal obsessions, his sensuality, his love of decoration and photographic style.
Mann wrote a script, which von Sternberg rejected. The popular comic playwright Carl Zuckmayer wrote another, whose dialogue von Sternberg liked. UFA's resident dramaturge, Robert Liebmann, incorporated the dialogue into a story which cut the novel in half, showing only the professor's surrender to the beautiful cabaret singer and his destruction at her hands. Jannings, famous for his love of lavish emotionalism, raised no objection to the many scenes of hysteria and public humiliation—material for which he had become famous in films like The Last Laugh. Von Sternberg proved difficult in his choice of star to play Lola. Mann's friend Trude Hesterberg was considered. So was stage actress Greta Massine, singer Lucie Mannheim, even Brigitte Helm. Finally, with time running out, Pommer signed Kathe Haack. Then, through Karl Vollmoeller, von Sternberg met Marlene Dietrich, a minor actress in films and on stage but better known as the companion of the star Willy Forst. The meeting with the 25-year-old married woman was the beginning of a life-long sexual obsession for von Sternberg, as well as the end of his marriage and the foundation of his true career.
Der blaue Engel became, like most of von Sternberg's films, an autobiographical excursion. In the material on Rath's autocratic teaching methods, von Sternberg paid back his own early torment at the hands of his father, who had forced him to learn Hebrew with frequent physical punishment to drive home the lessons. By choosing a turn of the century setting, von Sternberg placed the story in his own childhood, and decorated it with images of adolescent eroticism. On the walls of The Blue Angel Cabaret, designed by Otto Hunte, he plastered scores of posters, and hung the cafe with nets, dangling cardboard angels, stuffed birds—a familiar von Sternberg archetype— and, everywhere, low-hung lamps that give the film an air of scented, smoky claustrophobia.
Von Sternberg poured all his energy and imagination into the role of Lola, creating a star vehicle for the young Dietrich. Borrowing from the drawings of the erotic artist Felicien Rops, he created a figure out of a teenager's sexual fantasy, a vision in black stockings and heavy make-up, wearing an arrogantly tilted top hat. Her poses and movements on stage were mapped out with choreographic care, her songs crafted for her uninspiring voice by Friedrich Holländer, who found tunes needing only two or three notes. Her feline stroll on stage, her pointed, mocking stares, her casual use of her own sexual allure to beguile the giggling, simpering Jannings became elements in a screen persona Dietrich was to exploit for the rest of her career.
By contrast Jannings is feeble and monochromatically comic. The shadings he might have hoped to receive from von Sternberg's direction did not materialize. Instead, he found himself little more than a character player to this unknown young woman. Throughout the shooting, he threw tantrums, threatening to walk off the film and doing everything he could to break down the rapport between director and star. After the film, he was to demand successfully of UFA that he have total control over the material in all his subsequent films, a decision which destroyed him as a screen star.
Shot concurrently in English and German, Der blaue Engel confronted von Sternberg with a technical challenge of awesome complexity. Never a skilful editor or director of action, he was committed to a style where lighting and atmosphere conveyed the story, and where each performer's "dramatic encounter with light" spelled out their thought. To achieve this, he added to the script a number of minor but important characters, notably the clown who morosely observes life in the cafe, and who is revealed later (when Rath is forced into the same costume) to be another of Lola's discarded lovers. When the film was remade in 1959 with Mai Britt and Curt Jurgens, von Sternberg successfully sued 20th Century-Fox for plagiarism of his interpolated scenes, not found in the original screenplay.
Even before Der blaue Engel was finished, its success was obvious. Von Sternberg had shown tests of Dietrich to Paramount head B.P. Schulberg when he visited Berlin, and the studio immediately signed her to a two-picture contract. The premiere, on 31 March 1930, was a sensation: that night, she and von Sternberg sailed for America, to be met at the dock at New York by von Sternberg's wife, and a process server with writs against Dietrich for libel and alienation of affections. Neither director nor star were unduly concerned. Dietrich had found a vehicle to achieve international stardom. Von Sternberg, a subject on which he could focus his contradictory but prodigious talent. Der blaue Engel became the foundation of perhaps the most remarkable collaboration between actress and filmmaker that the cinema has ever seen.