* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich & Beyond)
The Blue Angel was one of Josef von Sternberg's first talkies, but in many way it still has the feel of a silent. Emil Jannings plays Professor Immanuel Rath with a dignity that is almost painful to see, and when that dignity is crushed, we it not through words, but through silences, slightly exaggerated movements, and a terrible stillness.
At first, the ones affronting him are his students, who mock him ceaselessly as Professor "Unrath" (apparently, German for "garbage") and blow off their studies to watch singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) at the Blue Angel nightclub. He chases them down, and while he is initially extremely embarassed to be in this establishment, he and Lola do hit it off, and he is caught somewhat by surprise at his ability to find joy in his life.
It's a good movie; a classic story filled with iconic characters. Maybe too iconic; Professor Rath is a brilliantly essayed type, but isn't as individual as the similar characters who would come later. Similarly, Lola is a primal movie force, the blonde woman who seduces and destroys not out of malice, but simply because it is her nature. Neither lights up the screen like their supporting characters, but that hasn't changed in almost seventy-five years since. Jannings and Dietrich didn't create these character types, but they have been greatly refined since. The film also makes some odd choices on which scenes to include and exclude; there are a few times when something feels missing, like the story lurches from one point to another more out of necessity than because it feels right. A lot of time is spent establishing Rath as a sort of pompous, stiff academic, more than strictly necessary.
Otherwise, this is an interesting film - it features von Sternberg's first collaboration with Dietrich, and was also filmed in both English and German-language version (the Brattle screened the German version), and is an early example of the "respectable man laid low by a beautiful woman" genre.