Monday, June 24, 2013

The Blue Angel (UFA, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I hung out at his place and ran The Blue Angel, my rather crude videotape of the 1930’s (I think) reissue, from a not-too-good print shown in the early 1990’s by KPBS (a reissue by something called “Screen Classics” that offered a subtitled German print, with the billing revised so Dietrich got billed above the title and Emil Jannings was the first actor billed after the title — a reversal of the way they were billed on the first release!). It’s still a pretty good movie, though some of the fights the Jannings character gets into in the cabaret after which the film is named get a little confusing (the print we were watching had obviously deteriorated over the years, and I’m sure better material on this film exists — and, interestingly, the English-language version, long thought lost, just resurfaced and was issued on laserdisc a few years ago in a package that also contained the German version). I’ve seen at least two endings for the film; the first version I ever saw (in the early 1970’s, reproduced by Janus Films from what I believe were the original German prints) ended with Emil Jannings returning to his old classroom to die, and the statues in the clock above the school revolving as the clock chimed at the end. In this print, the scene cuts from Jannings’ death to a sequence showing Dietrich singing her big song on a cabaret stage, then dissolves to a silent shot of the clock statues and back to her song — it’s this version that generated what John Kobal called “the haunting final shot” in his book on Dietrich, a caption that baffled me because at that time I’d only seen the version that ends with Jannings’ death. In some ways, the Dietrich ending — though less “authentic,” if my hunch that the Janus Films print is from the original German release is correct — is more powerful, since it makes the cynical point that Dietrich’s character will continue to live her life the way she has in the film we’ve seen (including cruising the strongman Mazeppa, played by Hans Albers, in front of her husband, Jannings), without compromise to any “moral” code either held by the characters in the film or by outside censors (certainly the Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S. would have demanded that she “suffer,” and possibly even die, for what she had done to wreck the professor’s life). — 4/14/96


I had the idea to show a movie I’ve long wanted our friend Garry to see: The Blue Angel, the 1930 German classic directed by Josef von Sternberg and originally intended as a vehicle for Emil Jannings. After his international success in German silents — particularly Friedrich Murnau’s film The Last Laugh in 1924 and E. A. Dupont’s Variety in 1925 — Jannings had received an enormous contract offer from Paramount, which billed him as “The World’s Greatest Actor” and starred him in four films, including von Sternberg’s melodrama The Last Command (about a White Russian general who flees to the U.S. after the Bolsheviks win the Civil War, settles in Hollywood, ekes out a living as a character actor and is finally hired to play a White Russian general in a movie directed by William Powell, who before he moved to Hollywood was one of the general’s Bolshevik torturers). Only Paramount fired Jannings when talkies came in (Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now offers a sorry tale of Jannings returning home with the first Academy Award for Best Actor in one hand and the letter firing him in the other) because they didn’t think he could speak English well enough to make sound films in the U.S. So he returned to Germany and, much to Sternberg’s astonishment — for he and Jannings had fought through much of the shoot for The Last Command — requested him as director of his first sound film, an adaptation of a 1905 novel by Heinrich Mann (Thomas Mann’s brother) alternately called Professor Unrat (“Professor Garbage”) and Small-Town Tyrant. Mann’s story, at least as far as I know, dealt with a professor at a German high school who meets and falls for a cabaret performer, marries her, loses his job over her, and is forced into a humiliating life as a stooge in her act until the two settle in a small town in which, by alternatingly seducing and blackmailing its key power brokers, she ultimately gets him elected mayor. What Sternberg was most interested in, not surprisingly, was the humiliation part — he and his credited writers, Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann merely lopped off the second half of the story and turned the film into a pitiless account of the degeneration of the male lead, Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), as he’s thrown fish-out-of-water style out of the comfortable, routine world of his room and his job into the raunchy, raucous cabaret scene and the small-time star, Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), with whom he falls in love.

There are a number of accounts of how Marlene Dietrich got the part of Lola Lola. She wasn’t a complete unknown then — she’d actually risen from extra work in early-1920’s German silents to bit parts (including an unconfirmed one in the 1925 film The Joyless Street, whose star was Greta Garbo) to starring roles in late-1920’s silents like The Ship of Lost Men and The Woman One Desires (directed by Curtis Bernhardt, who later also emigrated to Hollywood — though Dietrich frequently told interviewers that The Blue Angel was her first film, Bernhardt said when he saw Dietrich in Hollywood she remembered him and the film, and jokingly said it should have been called The Woman One Does Not Desire) — but she still hadn’t cracked the barrier from featured player in programmers to star. The page for The Blue Angel lists a whole lot of people who were supposedly under consideration for the role, including non-Germans like Gloria Swanson, Phyllis Haver and Louise Brooks (though Brooks was already a major star in Germany thanks to her role in the 1928 film Pandora’s Box, in which she played Lulu, an even more amoral and sexually rambunctious character than Lola Lola) as well as Brigitte Helm (Maria — both the real one and the robot — in Metropolis), Lya de Putti (who’d starred in a 1926 German version of Manon Lescaut with Dietrich in a supporting role), Lucie Mannheim (the woman spy who’s murdered in the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps), Trude Hesterberg, Kathe Haack, Lotte Lenya and even Leni Riefenstahl (though the last claim — her own — is dubious; more believably, Riefenstahl said that she was always jealous of Dietrich because with her bad-girl image she could party a lot off-screen and have a lot of boyfriends, while pre-Hitler Riefenstahl played the virginal good girl of German mountaineering films and therefore had to maintain that pure image off-screen as well). One account says Dietrich got the role because she was equally fluent in German and English, and UFA, the producing studio, planned to shoot The Blue Angel in both languages so they could have an English-language version to release in the U.S. and Britain.

The one I tend to believe is Josef von Sternberg’s story in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (the title is the name of an Edison one-reeler that was the first film Sternberg ever saw): according to Sternberg, Dietrich came to test for the film with a bored, world-weary attitude because she was convinced she wasn’t going to get the role and was merely going through the motions — and Sternberg hired her because that world-weary attitude was precisely what he wanted for the character. Years after I read that, I learned (from Robert Osborne’s introduction when TCM showed Pandora’s Box) that Dietrich had been up for the part of Lulu but at the last minute Louise Brooks had been hired instead — and it’s likely that the world-weary bitterness she showed when she came to test for The Blue Angel and her conviction that Sternberg would never hire her were lingering traumas over having lost another big part in a major film two years earlier. I remember first seeing The Blue Angel in 1971, when the film Cabaret was in its initial release, and the two have been “paired” in my mind ever since because of their dramatically different portrayals of the German cabaret scene during the Weimar Republic, one shot while the raffish Berlin cabarets were still a going concern (in fact the cabaret scene, or part of it, actually lingered under the Nazis, though considerably censored) and the other a retrospective look at it as shaped by the very different demands of Broadway and Hollywood. Indeed, one reason I’d long wanted our friend Garry to see The Blue Angel was he’s a huge fan of the film Cabaret and I thought he’d enjoy the comparison — and it was at least partly in deference to him that we ran the English-language version (the DVD set from Kino Lorber has two discs, one containing the German version and one the English) — but as it turned out he didn’t like it, I suspect because very little of the film actually takes place in and around the cabaret. It’s obvious that the film was planned as a star vehicle for Jannings — even though, much to his embarrassment, when it was released instead of rehabilitating his career it boosted Dietrich and made her an international star (what did rehabilitate Jannings’ career was, ironically enough, the Nazi takeover; the Nazis saw him as a prestige star and gave him important roles in historical epics, including playing Bismarck in the 1942 film The Dismissal) — and we see very little of Dietrich’s singing, even though her songs and her marvelous deadpan delivery of them, an ocean of calm in the raucous world of the cabaret, are the parts we remember.

I hadn’t seen The Blue Angel in years and among the things I hadn’t remembered about it are Otto Hunte’s almost Caligari-esque sets — even in a naturalistic film like this in which the characters are motivated by romantic and sexual obsessions rather than out-and-out insanity, the filmmakers couldn’t resist the temptation to create these bizarre Expressionist images of the world. The parts of the film that look relatively normal are the school (the images of the schoolboys cutting up in class before their teacher arrives seem universal) and the tiny room in which Prof. Rath lives, with only a housekeeper for company — he’s kept a bird but when we first see him at home, he whistles a birdsong, intending for the bird to respond, and when it doesn’t he realizes it’s dead — while the streets Prof. Rath ventures down to visit Lola Lola at the Blue Angel to tell her to stop encouraging the attentions of his students are full of Caligari-esque houses that lean down over him and a backdrop that reveals the whole scene as obviously an in-studio “exterior.” The impression we get is that Rath is venturing way outside his safety zone and encountering sex for the very first time; indeed (though this is a stronger plot point in the German version than the English one, which runs about 20 to 30 minutes shorter), when he gets drunk on his second night at the Blue Angel and wakes up in Lola Lola’s bed, we get the impression that until that night he’s never had sex before in his life. (Usually movies about middle-aged victims who fall for young temptresses show them as having been widowed by a fine, good, upstanding woman who died on them and sent their emotional and sexual lives into mothballs; here there is no sign that Rath has ever been married or, indeed, been in a relationship at all.) Sternberg observes Rath’s downfall — he’s fired from his job the first day he shows up late after that night with Lola, she agrees to marry him (apparently because she considers him a novelty) but eventually his savings run out and they have to live on her money, and she gets him to sell postcards of her during her performances (ironically the same postcards that he had discovered his students carrying, which had led him to Lola Lola and the world of the Blue Angel in the first place); ultimately he’s forced to appear in the act as a clown, sidekick of the magician Kiepurt (Kurt Gerron from the original cast of The Threepenny Opera), who owns the troupe with which Lola Lola performs.

The ending takes place in the town where Rath once taught, in which for the first time in five years (the story starts in 1924 and ends in 1929) the troupe is to perform at the Blue Angel — and virtually the whole town comes out to glory in the ultimate humiliation of their formerly respected professor. Rath initially refuses to go on, but eventually does so (and Sternberg films his humiliation through a sheer white curtain, reflecting his alienation through what pioneering film writer Theodore Huff called “his annoying trick of always having something in the way” — this was a lifetime trademark of Sternberg and it’s the giveaway that Sternberg, not replacement director Nicholas Ray, shot the final chase scene in 1952’s Macao, especially when Robert Mitchum takes out a knife and slices through a fish net that’s blocking his way), only after he’s done he attempts to kill Lola Lola, is pulled off her by Mazeppa (Hans Albers) — the strongman who’s replaced him in her bed — slinks out in shame, walks the familiar route to the school where he used to teach, and ascends the stairs to his old classroom — where he dies just as the ornate town clock, which features a series of statues that revolves around the clock as it strikes the hour, goes off at 8 a.m., his old start time, and the school’s custodian discovers him at the desk, tries to rouse him and realizes he’s dead. (Oddly, the last shot of the clock statues, one of the most profound and beautiful moments of the German version, is omitted from the English one even though we’ve seen quite a number of premonitory shots of the clock in action.) There are in fact at least three different endings for this film: the German one, the English one and a re-edit of the German version that was reissued (with subtitles) in 1937 in which, reflecting their subsequent career paths, the order of the final scenes was swapped so that Dietrich’s final performance of her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” occurs after, not before, Jannings’ death. (The German lyrics of this song — “From head to foot I’m made for love” — have a very different, less world-weary and more blatantly sexual affect than the English ones, but Dietrich doesn’t seem to have minded because throughout her career she performed both; as I pointed out to Garry, this was her signature song the way “Over the Rainbow” was Judy Garland’s.)

The Blue Angel has become one of those films whose classic status is so far beyond dispute it was surprising that Garry didn’t like it — I suspect he was too tired to appreciate it and it was also too “Continental,” too European, too dark for him — and like a lot of other classics in all media it’s had its share of bizarre readings. Siegfried Krackauer in his book on the films of Weimar-era Germany, From Caligari to Hitler (a nice title if only because of its juxtaposition of a fictional madman and a real one!), read the students in The Blue Angel as prototypes of the Hitler Youth, tormenting the professor as a representative of the more liberal, cultured Germany of the Republic. Sternberg was withering about Krackauer’s analysis in his autobiography, stating that before he went to Germany to make the film (Sternberg was bi-national, Austrian and American; his parents had divorced, one had gone back home to Austria while the other stayed in the U.S., and he was shuttled between them for most of his childhood) he had never heard of Hitler or the Nazis. Once there, he saw two Nazi rallies but otherwise knew nothing about them, and in any case they had nothing to do with the inspiration for his film; everything in it that wasn’t from Sternberg’s own imagination, he said, came from a novel first published in 1905, well before the Nazis existed. I hadn’t realized this before but there is a striking parallel between The Blue Angel and Bizet’s opera Carmen — also a story about a relatively well-respected man brought down by his romantic obsession with a sexually liberated woman; indeed, I suspect Sternberg and his writers may have deliberately reshaped Heinrich Mann’s material to heighten the Carmen similarities. The main difference is that while Don José actually kills Carmen once he rejects her (a possibility she’s been well aware of all along; in Prosper Merimée’s source novel she tells him that under Gypsy law he is her Rom and she is his Romi, and “you may kill your Romi but you may never leave her”), in The Blue Angel Rath attempts to strangle Lola Lola after his humiliating performance at the cabaret in the final scenes but Mazeppa pulls him off in time — one could readily imagine a remix of Carmen in which the bullfighter Escamillo similarly comes on her and José after his bullfight and pulls him off her, thereby saving her life.

The Blue Angel remains a fascinating film, and in his autobiography Sternberg mentions that to make it Dietrich had to sign a contract, similar to the one Bette Davis signed with Warner Bros. two years later to get the part opposite George Arliss in The Man Who Played God, that gave UFA the right to put her under permanent contract if they liked her. Sternberg was sweating bullets hoping UFA wouldn’t exercise that option — his master plan for Dietrich was to bring her back to the U.S. and sign her to his home studio, Paramount (which despite having fired Jannings was also UFA’s main U.S. distributor and had the American rights to The Blue Angel) — and in the end they didn’t, Dietrich came to America and never returned to Germany until she was booked there for a concert tour in 1960. One thing I found remarkable about the English-language Blue Angel — which wasn’t rediscovered until the 1980’s — was how good Dietrich’s English was, especially given that she had never been out of Germany when she made it and the only native English speakers she would have heard were tourists from Britain, America and other English-speaking countries. She nails the “th” and “w” sounds — the biggest traps for Germans learning English since they do not exist in German (indeed, one of the film’s cruelest scenes is of Rath browbeating one of the students for speaking Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as “To be or not to be/Zat is ze question” and making the entire class write the word “the” 200 times because the one boy failed to pronounce it properly) — and I’ve long thought the entire concept of casting Jannings as a professor whose job it is to teach English as a foreign language to German students was his screw-you to the “suits” at Paramount who hadn’t thought he could speak English well enough to act in American talkies. The Blue Angel was a formidable start to that fascinating series of seven films in which Sternberg directed Dietrich — some of them masterly, some of them maddening, some of them both — even though Paramount chose not to release it in the U.S. until after Dietrich’s first American-made film, Morocco (and after Paramount’s dieticians had slimmed her down considerably the way MGM’s had with Garbo five years before!). — 6/24/13