Immanuel Rath, an old bachelor, is a professor at the town's university. When he discovers that some of his pupils often go into a speakeasy, The Blue Angel, to visit a dancer, Lola Lola, he comes there to confront them. But he is attracted to Lola. The next night he comes again--and does not sleep at home. This causes trouble at work and his life takes a downward spiral.
Seductive women driving mild-mannered men to their doom is one of cinema's most well-traveled themes, but few films depict the slow march to depravity and despair with as much brutal honesty as 'The Blue Angel.' The classic German film, which packs a powerful punch, launched the esteemed career of 29-year-old Marlene Dietrich, who caused a sensation as the slinky siren Lola Lola and introduced what would instantly become her signature song, 'Falling in Love Again.' The matter-of-fact lyrics - "Men cluster to me like moths around a flame, and if their wings burn I know I'm not to blame" - define both her character and the picture, which presents a harsh, cynical view of human relationships. Though director Josef von Sternberg would craft far more lavish and ambitious movies a few years later (almost all of which would star Dietrich, with whom he became intimately involved), this modest yet supremely affecting character study showcases his ability to cut to the heart of a situation and examine it with piercing intensity.
Dietrich mesmerizes as the crude, zaftig nightclub singer who stokes the libido of every male she encounters with a combination of raw sexuality, coquetry, and thinly veiled disdain. Yet despite fueling the story's narrative, Lola Lola is not the main character of this depressing drama. The rigid, repressed Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), who sternly presides over a crew of recalcitrant male students, is the central figure, and his transformation from a pious pillar of respectability to a broken, degraded buffoon is devastating.
A creature of habit, Professor Rath leads a dull, ordered, and solitary existence, and expects his students to do the same. Yet when he discovers some risqué postcards of a sultry singer in their possession, the enraged teacher decides to pay a visit to the sleazy establishment where this paragon of impropriety works - and where his infatuated pupils hang out. Rath skulks into the sleazy Blue Angel nightclub, an obvious prototype for the infamous Kit Kat Club in 'Cabaret,' with the intent of cleaning house, but instead finds himself smitten by the steamy chanteuse, who reawakens his dormant desires and strangely fascinates him. That fascination quickly progresses to full-blown obsession, then subjugation, and finally an utter loss of dignity that's agonizing to watch.
An intimate tale focusing on character and the demons - both within and without - that conspire to bring us down, 'The Blue Angel' also depicts a decadent culture that soon would be quashed by the rigid ideology of Adolf Hitler. The film implies no man, young or old, can resist the allure of The Blue Angel or a bawdy vamp like Lola Lola (who could be classified as one of the screen's first femme fatales), and even the most upstanding males are base creatures harboring repressed urges that once aroused can't be contained. Though indulging such lascivious cravings can be rationalized (and the accompanying guilt minimized), the loss of dignity and total rejection of one's core values cannot be overcome. Such a message is very German in tone, but it possesses universal reverberations. Even today, 83 years later, the climax of 'The Blue Angel' is shocking and difficult to stomach, but that's why the movie endures. As the last notable film of the Weimar Republic, 'The Blue Angel' marked the end of an era, and it's bleak final image of a man clinging to the remnants of his former life either unwittingly (or deftly) foreshadows Germany's next dark chapter.
Dietrich reportedly didn't care for her unsympathetic role and worried it would tarnish her image, while Jannings, who had recently won the first ever Best Actor Academy Award for 'The Last Command' (also directed by von Sternberg), didn't approve of her casting and resented the attention she received from von Sternberg during shooting. Yet whatever their concerns, both actors brilliantly excel in their respective parts. Dietrich eschews histrionics in favor of a naturally sullen portrayal that makes her insolence resonate, and Jannings runs the gamut from austerity to giddiness to psychotic frenzy in a richly textured performance that remains affecting and arresting to this day.
A year ago, Kino released just the original German-language version of 'The Blue Angel' on Blu-ray, much to many fans' outrage. This two-disc "ultimate edition" also contains the English-language release, which was shot simultaneously and runs about three minutes shorter. Though interesting from a novelty standpoint, the English version is also a frustrating view, because only a few of the cast members - namely Jannings and Dietrich - actually speak English! Minor supporting and bit players continue to recite their lines in their native German, and unfortunately Kino doesn't supply English subtitles for the English version, so many nuances are missed (unless, of course, you're bilingual). Bottom line: If you want to experience the movie in its truest form and experience all it has to offer, stick with the German original.
'The Blue Angel' is a motion picture of enormous merit, and it deserves to be viewed by every serious film enthusiast. Though it drags in spots and the limitations of early sound technology occasionally constrain the action and lend the production an unfortunate clunky feel, the inherent power of the piece cannot be subdued, and once seen, this classic of German cinema will not be soon forgotten.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Blue Angel' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sturdy sleeve. Two BD50 dual-layer discs reside inside - one contains the German-language version of the film and the other contains the English-language counterpart, along with the special features. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio for both versions is LPCM 2.0 mono. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
It's always preferable to watch a foreign film in the version featuring its native tongue, and in the case of 'The Blue Angel,' the German-language version also boasts the better transfer. Perfectly balanced, with a natural yet non-intrusive grain structure and only a few errant print defects, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Kino is so good, it almost makes us forget the movie's advanced age. Contrast and clarity are excellent for a film of this vintage, and though a wider gray scale might lend the picture more detail and depth, there's enough variance to keep the eye engaged. Black levels are strong, shadow delineation is fine, and close-ups, especially those of Jannings, showcase facial features well. Though the packaging states the film is "newly restored" from archival 35mm elements, this is surely the same transfer that was released by Kino a scant year ago. Still, the image is in great shape and a treat for classic film aficionados.
The English-language version, which is making its high-def debut here, is more problematic and far less consistent. Many more print defects afflict this version, such as nicks, scratches, end-of-reel markers, and a faint white vertical line that runs through several scenes early in the film. Grain and light levels also wildly fluctuate, with some shots exhibiting excessive amounts of grain or an overly dark or washed out look. Long stretches, however, rival the German-language version, but the overall presentation is a bit ragged and not nearly as fulfilling as its German counterpart.
For an 83-year-old film, 'The Blue Angel' features impressive audio on both the German- and English-language versions. The LPCM 2.0 mono tracks boast better-than-average fidelity, a wide enough dynamic scale to keep distortion to a minimum, and not as much shrillness as one might expect. Though surface noise is certainly evident, it's surprisingly muted; the pops and crackles that do crop up aren't overly intrusive, and hiss has been nicely reduced. Accents are a tad sharp and too pronounced, but that's more a symptom of early sound recording equipment than any transfer defect. Dietrich's songs sound full and bold, yet a tinny quality - typical of vintage soundtracks - plagues the orchestrations. Dialogue, however, remains clear and comprehendible most of the time.
The most amusing aspect of the audio is the manner in which the backstage scenes are handled. When the door to Dietrich's dressing room is open, all the cacophonous sounds of the stage - music, singing, voices, errant bustling - flood into the room at quite a high volume level. Yet when someone shuts the door, there's instant silence, as if a technician had turned off a switch (which he probably did!). Such jarring shifts lend the production a stagey quality, but they're understandable given the primitive nature of early sound, as well as the engineers inexperience with the medium.
Still, for antiquated tracks, both of these efforts are well rendered, and it's obvious care has been taken to make sure the reproduction is as clean and vibrant as possible.
The previous Blu-ray edition of 'The Blue Angel' contained no supplements whatsoever, so it's good news indeed that this Ultimate Edition rights that wrong, bringing back many of the extras that appeared on the 2001 DVD. Though the audio commentary has been dropped, along with text-based biographical profiles of the cast and crew, this is still a nice collection of material that will especially please admirers of Marlene Dietrich.
A classic of German cinema, 'The Blue Angel' remains a timeless tale of one man's fall from grace, and the repression, obsession, and degradation that fuel and accelerate it. Director Josef von Sternberg immerses us in the decadent atmosphere of the Weimar Republic and helps craft the star-making performance of his own obsession, Marlene Dietrich. Yet despite Dietrich's electrifying presence, the film belongs to the great German actor, Emil Jannings, whose brilliant portrayal of the tortured professor makes an indelible impression. Kino's two-disc ultimate edition contains both the German- and English-language versions of this vintage film, which are distinguished by surprisingly good video and audio transfers, and a healthy spate of supplements. (If you own the previous Blu-ray, an upgrade is only necessary if you want the film's [subpar] English-language version and the disc extras, which are interesting, but not essential.) Though disturbing and heartbreaking, 'The Blue Angel' remains an important movie that paints an insightful portrait of a man and a nation at a crossroads. Recommended.