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.
'The Blue Angel' is many things. It was one of the first sound films to come out of Germany. It was Marlene Dietrich's first starring role. It was one of the last major movies from Weimar Germany, and Emil Jannings' last great film. But more than anything else, 'The Blue Angel' is a tragic tale, compellingly told by acclaimed director Josef von Sternberg and brilliantly acted by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.
Emil Jannings plays Professor Immanuel Rath. He is a well-respected but overly stuffy and formal teacher, feared by his students. He catches one with postcards of a showgirl, Lola-Lola, and the student reveals that many of the pupils go to the local club, The Blue Angel, to see Lola perform. Rath goes to the club to catch the boys, but instead is caught in a spotlight by Lola, played by Dietrich. Rath finds himself irresistibly charmed by the freewheeling Lola, and becomes possessive of her. He goes back a second night and sleeps with her. Returning to the school, he discovers that his students told the headmaster about Rath's late night trips and now Rath is disgraced. In despair, he resigns and proposes to Lola. At first he sells her postcards as she performs on the cabaret stage, but soon his funds run out and he has to resort to playing a clown on stage to make ends meet. Lola begins to despise Rath and seeks solace in the arms of other men, causing Rath to be filled with jealousy and longing.
'The Blue Angel' is a remarkably sophisticated film for an early sound picture. The 1920s had seen great advances in film technique from multiple sources. Eisenstein was nurturing the montage in Russia. Chaplin and Keaton were reinventing comedy in Britain and the United States. And Germany was the most creative of all, giving birth to the German Expressionist movement, which made the silver screen a canvas for emotional nightmares. Sound pictures were actually a step back stylistically, as the restrictions of sound recording demanded static camera placement and limited the artistic freedom of directors and cinematographers.
Josef von Sternberg takes advantage of these limitations, telling a small, intimate tale that doesn't require elaborate camera setups. His visual style complements the story he wants to tell. And the man knew how to layer images within a frame. The first time Rath spends an evening in Lola's dressing room at The Blue Angel, a sad mute clown frequently shadows him, looking on disapprovingly. The character says nothing and is probably ignored by most of the audience, or perhaps thought of as some kind of silent gag, but he is in fact a foreshadowing of Rath's eventual fate (and who knows, might even have been one of Lola's previous lovers). Visual cues like those help lift 'The Blue Angel' from being just an old movie to one worthy of study.
The film is driven by the performances of its two leads. Emil Jannings, the first person to ever win an Oscar for best actor, gives a beautifully worn-in performance as Professor Rath. In the early scenes, his overbearing demeanor is perfectly portrayed, leading to a wonderful contrast when he's confronted with the direct and playful Lola and finds himself at a loss. Later, as the put-upon husband, his melancholy and despair, mixed with his insatiable desire to please Lola at any cost, makes him a truly tragic figure. Jannings plays all of these beats with just the right touch, leading to a shocking and truly sad ending.
As great as Jannings is, he's completely upstaged by Marlene Dietrich. Now considered one of the great personalities of the twentieth century, at the time Dietrich was virtually unknown outside of the German stage. She enters the picture unceremoniously, performing a burlesque number on stage that would have been racy at the time but feels quaint now. However, once she appears in her dressing room, all bets are off. Simply put, the woman is electric. You can't take your eyes off her. She plays Lola with a sardonic touch, enjoying Rath's attentions but never actually respecting him. In the crucial scene of the film, a newly disgraced Rath presents himself to Lola with flowers and asks for her hand in marriage. Instead of sighing with girlish delight, Lola laughs cruelly, signaling where the power in the relationship lies.
Sternberg was immediately smitten with Dietrich (his wife presented him with divorce papers the moment he and Dietrich arrived on American shores), and you can tell by the way he presents his star. While the cabaret scenes now seem tame, they became quite influential. In fact, Dietrich is the basis for Madeline Kahn's turn as Lili Von Shtupp in 'Blazing Saddles', and her big number "I'm Tired" is a direct parody of 'The Blue Angel'. The film also introduces Dietrich's signature song, "Falling In Love Again (Can't Help It)". In short, the movie made Dietrich an overnight star. In Hollywood, Sternberg would be instrumental in creating Dietrich's screen persona, using his signature soft lighting techniques. In this film though, she's shown more naturalistically, allowing her performance to shine through.
The picture is clearly divided in half, with Rath's marriage to Lola acting as the fulcrum. Before the marriage, the movie has a light tone, portraying The Blue Angel and Lola's life as not perfect, but a fun and jaunty place, full of colorful characters. After the marriage, the veneer cracks almost immediately, with the ramifications of Rath's decision becoming increasingly clear. Once jovial figures like the head of the touring company turn tyrannical, and Lola herself is filled with disdain for Rath. The film ends tragically, with Rath reduced to a shell of his former self. Even eighty-two years on, 'The Blue Angel' remains a vital and important work of art.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics offers 'The Blue Angel' in a barebones package that advertises a newly restored print. Shot simultaneously in English and German, this Blu-ray only includes the German-language version.
Kino presents 'The Blue Angel' in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 in this 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. Being over eighty years old, 'The Blue Angel' has held up remarkably well. Kino mentions that the film had been newly restored using 35mm elements from the same organization that oversaw the recent 'Metropolis' restoration. Although this film didn't receive as thorough of a remaster as 'Metropolis' did, there's plenty of fine image detail. You can practically count the whiskers on Rath's face. Contrast is quite sharp, with clear delineations between the dark and light elements of the frame. The grain structure of the film is well preserved. The black and white image is stark well presented.
Of course, being as old as it is, 'The Blue Angel' isn't without its problems. There are plenty of vertical scratches on the print, as well as shots where the corners fade to white. The image can go from clean and pretty to dirty and foggy from moment to moment, although the good shots outweigh the bad. I didn't notice any transfer issues, though, only source concerns. Again, given the film's age, it's hard to expect it to look significantly better than this without a full restoration, and even then, it'll probably never look as good as several other high profile restorations that are now being shown off on Blu-ray.
The original German audio is provided via an uncompressed PCM 2.0 mix with English subtitles. For a track this old, practically the only important thing is that the dialogue comes through clearly and without distortion, which for the most part it does. 'The Blue Angel' was one of the first talkies to come out of Germany, so the mix is understandably crude. A great example is when Rath is in Lola's dressing room. Opening the door, all the sounds of the cabaret outside can be heard loud and clear. When she shuts the door, the sound from the cabaret cuts off completely, as if everyone outside had gone utterly silent. Outside of the dynamics of the mix, there are issues stemming from the track's age. There is a persistent background hiss that you can tune out but never dissipates. Sounds at times appear muffled, but not to the point of distraction. Again, given the context, this track sounds as good as one would reasonably expect.
When Kino released 'The Blue Angel' on DVD, it was a two-disc edition that contained both the German and English-language versions of the film, with commentaries and other special features. Inexplicably, this Blu-ray release has included no extras whatsoever. All you get is the German-language cut of the film. For a movie this important (the back of the case even calls it "The crowning achievement of Weimar cinema"), it's unconscionable to release it without extras that already exist. Poor show, Kino.
'The Blue Angel' is an essential film for many reasons, most especially because it rocketed Marlene Dietrich to stardom, but at its heart it's just a fantastic, tragic tale. Josef von Sternberg smartly directs two stellar performances by Emil Jannings and Deitrich, and the world of cinema was forever enriched for it. This Blu-ray offers remastered picture and sound that look as good as can be expected for a film over eighty years old, but the disc is utterly devoid of extras, despite Kino's own DVD release being a two-disc set. The omission of any features is a grave oversight that may give pause to people who would normally buy the disc without hesitation. This is a great film that should be seen, and this is the way to see it, so it's at least worth a rental. If you like it enough to own it, you may want to find a used copy of the DVD for the supplements and English-language version.