Josef von Sternberg
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
lthough history has turned Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) into one of the actress Marlene Dietrich’s definitive films, it wasn’t originally intended to be a breakout moment for the then-unknown 29-year-old revue artist. At the time, it was supposed to be a vehicle for the 46-year-old actor Emil Jannings. Jannings, a two-time Oscar winner (for 1927’s The Way of All Flesh and 1928’s The Last Command), was looking to make the transition from silent cinema to talkies — and The Blue Angel, the first full-length, German sound film, would give him the opportunity to do so.
Yet the resulting movie hardly seems to be about Jannings at all. It is about the almost-not-cast Dietrich, who cinematically embodies the “modern woman” so prominent in literature, film, and culture in the earlier part of the 20th century. It hosts an exemplary model of the breakout performance, to be certain: Like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) or Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), in Dietrich do we see a newcomer whose star persona has inexplicably been fully formed. The camera, it seems, was the final ingredient in a formula for era-redefining superstardom.
She almost saves The Blue Angel, which is a standard tragicomedy that echoes the works of Beckett and Dürrenmatt. But that task is too big. The movie, while capably made, never beckons a reaction out of us. It is a porous, one-note weepie where the tragedy’s obvious and unaffecting and the stabs at comedy are bumptious.
In the film, Dietrich is Lola Lola, a beautiful — albeit wicked — saloon singer who accidentally woos the stuffy, bristly college professor Immanuel (Jannings) and leads him to his doom via sexual jealousy and humiliation.
When The Blue Angel’s primary focus is Dietrich — especially when she’s belting “Falling in Love (I Can’t Help It)” and “They Call Me Naughty Lola” at the center of a smoked-out stage — it feels alive. Almost 90 years have passed since the film first won over both American and European audiences, and yet Dietrich remains a cinematic A-bomb.
Trouble is is that the feature is more concentrated on the aches and pains of Jannings, whose Rath is bearish and one-dimensionally frustrated. So the movie’s radiance fluctuates. It is midlife crisis monotony, unfortunately, that dominates on the whole.
The Blue Angel’s significance is inarguable: It was among the first culture-shaking sound films, the first time we ever saw the capabilities of the soon-to-be ubiquitous Dietrich, and worked as the beginning of a long creative partnership between her and the inventive von Sternberg. It was even banned in Nazi Germany for most of World War II, adding to its legend. But importance does not a great movie make. If von Sternberg and Dietrich’s names weren’t attached, would we be watching? C+