…when Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) shuts himself in his chaotic study¤ to peruse the lubricious postcards of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) confiscated from his somewhat mature high school pupils. His pose anticipates the fascinated KING KONG examining a doll-like Fay Wray cradled in his palm.¤¤ With the guilty furtiveness of a pornographer, he blows on the feathered card (bird imagery saturates a film which begins aptly with a shot of women loading geese into coops). The fronds fly up to reveal the Dietrich stocking tops and thighs, the objects of his coming destruction. Dissolve to Lola Lola in person, singing a jaunty rude song¥ full of triple entendre, on the stage of the Blue Angel cabaret.
Which itself is like a disturbed child’s cut-out toy theatre jam-packed with grotesques. As a director Von Sternberg, like de Mille, believed in giving the viewer plenty to look at. Moribund obese girls sit drinking beer passed up to them by the even fatter landlord; cut-out cherubs, sunbursts, fountains, clouds, stuffed seagulls and anchors hang over their heads. Nets are draped around like sticky cobwebs. Phallic symbols abound. Lola Lola is shot from below to give us an eyeful of beautiful legs,# pearly plump thighs and suspenders. (The bemused and besotted Professor will be later commanded to roll on Lola’s stockings for her). Dietrich wears the first of a collector’s wardrobe of weirdly fetishist costumes, a shimmering strappy maillot of black sequins with a spangled butterfly in her tong-frizzed hair. Here is Marlene but not as we later knew her: grubby, cheerfully greedy, stupid, sexy and (initially) rather endearing, even loveable, wiping the beer from her lips with the end of her sash. Lola is a dirty postcard come to life. She seems devoid of emotions, an easy-going tart who preys idly on men to relieve her ennui and only incidentally for whatever rewards are going – a bottle of Sekt, a pineapple, a fur coat and in the Professor’s case an offer of marriage, accepted for a laugh. But her eyes light up like a serpent’s, like those a beast of prey as the Professor peers in through the filthy windows and stumbles into the Blue Angel to be entangled in the fishing nets: Lola turns a stage spotlight onto him as he struggles like a bluebottle caught by a plump blonde spider in backless transparent panniers. Her closeup then is astonishing, not for the ethereal beauty revealed in SHANGHAI EXPRESS or BLONDE VENUS, but she because she looks dangerously mad, an erotic Lumpen vampire. She has come to life with the smell of fresh blood and found something to do with her evening.
As you’d expect from a case study of sadomasochism, the film delights in casual images of cruelty, nastiness and threat. A dead canary is thrown into the stove by a shrewish landlady, a muzzled bear is pulled through the dressing rooms, moths burn in the lyrics of Lola’s song, an emasculated dumb clown mourns and gawps. The Professor bullies his pupils: they trip, entrap and spank the class sneak. Everyone shouts, fights, sneers and blusters – and lives in dread of the police. The characters in this most interior & claustrophobic of films crash, push and trample around like stockaded cattle. Lola’s frilled knickers (dropped, inspected, pocketed, used as a hanky) become the focus of everyone’s attention. It’s like a crazy drunken nightmare: and like a dream it is carnal, comic, surreal and terrifying by turns, each quality taken to extremes. As in a dream, too, the setting is vague and timeless. The very first shot of the movie is of Grimm/ Expressionist rooftops & gables establishing a dark Hansel and Gretl territory where any horrors may happen. There is no sense of a particular era: the studio streets are crooked medieval alleys and it is a shock when we briefly see the cast wearing fashions of 1929. There is a curious echo of THE BLUE ANGEL in Tod Browning’s much-banned FREAKS (1932): both as regards similarities of plot, setting, atmosphere, and in the climax of both films. The last few minutes of THE BLUE ANGEL achieve a rare pinnacle of hand-over-mouth horror as the pervasive bird motif explodes* once again back on the stage of the cabaret. (Wait for the moment when Hans Albers unpacks the straitjacket…).
This was intended to be Jannings’s film**, not Dietrich’s. His is the name above the title. The later fate of the cast after Hitler came to power is bizarre, extraordinary and tragic enhancing both the gloom and magnetism of the film. Marlene took American citizenship and metamorphosed into the most enigmatic and enduring of 20th century movie legends; for my money she was never again as good on screen as in The BLUE ANGEL. A luminous, unearthly and impossible glamour replaced her earlier liveliness and spontaneity. Her lover Von Sternberg helped her realise her potential as one of the most startlingly beautiful women of the cinema; but even as he laid the foundation for her legend Von Sternberg came close to ruining her as an actress. In 1929 Dietrich was heavier but sprightlier; and so assured, so natural, so spontaneous, so entirely within character – “she doesn’t ‘act’ common – she IS “. THE BLUE ANGEL is one of those rare and wonderful films when a star personality, a director’s vision and a script come together perfectly. As Marlene tugs at her crotch, snaps her suspenders and clucks like a hen we gaze fascinated at one of the great instinctive performances of cinema history.
This sinister hypnotic gripping film is as rich in the suggestion of stale, disturbing, invasive smells as it is in its startling and thrilling exploration of the new sound technology***. Dietrich herself was one of history’s great perfume lovers. In the movie our olfactory imaginations are constantly stimulated: cosmetics, creams and a large atomiser on Lola’s dressing table; face powder blown in the Professor’s eyes, endless cigarettes and unclean silk stockings; sweat, hair oil, burning hair and papers; cheap make up, ratty old clothes and wigs; chalk, dust and decay, slopped beer, pigs trotters with sauerkraut, “the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint”. And of course those eternal knickers. Even the Professor’s name is repeatedly corrupted from Rath to Unrath (“excrement”, by your leave). Which leads our noses into the animal stenches of lust, sex and body fluids. No wonder THE BLUE ANGEL was banned in Germany outright after 1933. The prurient, sensory realism of the post-Inflationary Weimar depression – the smell of moral rot – had no place in the Nazis’ own hellish version of puritan hygienic nightmare.
¤ we have already been told that it smells.
¤¤ and, as in KONG, here too it is Beauty that kills the Beast, after first driving him mad.
¥ “It’s not that one…it’s the other one..” M.D.
# “Sweetheart, the legs aren’t so wonderful, I just know what to do with them” – M.D.
* just as Olga Baclanova ends up in the sawdust as the mutilated Human Chicken in FREAKS.
** as LW witnessed at a London screening about 20 years ago. An elderly German woman stood in the aisle crooning “Ach! Der Jannings! Der Jannings!” until implored to sit by a packed house. In the foyer afterwards, another woman asked her husband, “So – who was Marlene?” As Barbara Windsor once said to LW: “Manic, innit?”
*** THE BLUE ANGEL was Germany’s first major talkie.
EMIL JANNINGS 1884 – 1950
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992