The Blue Angel (Masters of Cinema) Review

As well as being the important first pairing of one of the most legendary director-actress teams in film history, The Blue Angel [Der blau engel] represents a unique merging of the American and German studio systems at the dawn of the era of early talkies. The 1930 picture, separately made in both German and English language versions, was a cinematic landmark. Josef von Sternberg, the Austrian-born, American-bred director with a handful of major silent films already to his credit, was personally requested by Emil Jannings to make the actor's first sound feature. The two had already worked together in Hollywood on The Last Command for Paramount but the experience behind the scenes had been so poor that von Sternberg was surprised when the powerful Jannings wanted him to come to Germany. As the story goes, Marlene Dietrich was a late find, plucked from the stage to play the cabaret singer Lola Lola. Von Sternberg molded her into his own feminine ideal. He took a little-known actress with several films and numerous stage plays under her belt and created a star and an icon. With his encouragement, Dietrich became dangerously flirtatious to the point where it becomes difficult to ever truly trust her in a film.

The role she plays in The Blue Angel allows Dietrich to quickly establish that insensitive, contradictory persona we'd see for years to follow both in her other collaborations with von Sternberg and elsewhere. She seduces the professor played by Jannings but she does it in a way which manages to feel at once both enigmatic and cruel. He's so incensed that his students are spending time at the titular night club that he goes there himself to either see what the fuss is about or retrieve the students or, most likely, both. The resulting web in which he becomes entangled is the apex of the picture's narrative strength. We miss any and all indication as to the professor's earlier romantic encounters. We know only that he's at least slightly smitten with Lola from the moment he finds one of his student's postcards of her. The life he connects to her will eventually become so attractive as to warrant a basic repudiation of his entire existence. He gives up teaching and his stable home life to be with Lola. He travels with her. He loses his pride because of her. Ultimately, he transforms himself for her and the consequences are tragic.

Von Sternberg's film spends the majority of its time preparing the audience for what still becomes a very swift shock. We become acquainted with the professor's ways and basic views prior to a sudden shift that propels the picture forward a number of years and into 1929. The resulting turn the film takes is dominated by a keen sense of sadness. The specific roles being occupied by the two main characters now feel less important than the overriding emotion of the professor's situation and whether he deserves the blame for it. It's difficult not to at least feel some sympathy for this man's decline, particularly on the basis of the hit his pride takes. There are elements here which are reminiscent of that previous Jannings-Von Sternberg collaboration The Last Command, particularly when dealing with notions of pride and defeat and the overall sensitivities of man. But The Blue Angel introduces the folly of lust. The professor here is drawn to Lola in a clearly sexual way and his resultant undoing only magnifies the singular nature of his interest.

Throughout, von Sternberg's genius as a filmmaker highlights the possibilities of exactly where this all might go. He almost lulls the audience into expecting something either staid or violent but never really as fully tragic as what occurs. The director had better opportunities both before and after this film, in Hollywood, to show his stylistic genius. So while The Blue Angel might not dazzle with its attention to his beloved light and shadows, the rather muted reliance on those technical concerns allows for a stronger emotional impact than we might normally expect from von Sternberg. The result is pure, straight and devastating. Aided by Jannings' abrupt emasculation, the scenario becomes nightmarish. His character undergoes something akin to a lobotomy. The very final descent, during which von Sternberg now gets to put his masterful lighting techniques to use, threatens to be both frightening and terrible.

If there's a moral to be taken away from The Blue Angel it might be something warning against the basic vibrancies of lust and delusion. The professor character becomes involved with Lola, eventually marrying her, to his fantastic detriment and with little to rationalize his actions. He's defeated, as many of us are, by sex or the promise of such. It's all in the residue of false victory. Part of what makes the film so affecting is its ability to connect far beyond the immediate situations seen on the screen. Over eighty years later, von Sternberg's picture carries an impact which is somewhat unique among early sound films of this era. Rather than being content to simply experiment with the burgeoning technology of the time, The Blue Angel offers a sophisticated stab at narrative maturity. It promises things to come while also delivering perhaps the darkest storyline among the von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations.

The Disc(s)

Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series brings The Blue Angel to a Dual Format release in the UK. The Region B Blu-ray is pretty well stacked with special features, far more than the Region A alternative put out by Kino. The DVD was not available for review.

Video quality is a bit rough, all things considered. The 1.19:1 aspect ratio image appears with heavy grain and somewhat burdened by the presence of occasional vertical scratches. The image does at least look consistent and enjoys a pleasing degree of grain integrity. For all of the lack of detail and sharpness here, the faithfulness to the material serves as a necessary answer to most such shortcomings. In all, I'm very grateful to see the picture on Blu-ray and more than content with the final result.

Audio is burdened by a prominent hiss in the German language LPCM mono 2.0 track. It's certainly not so damaged as to be a hindrance to the viewing experience but there are clearly still some limitations here. Keeping in mind that this was the advent of the talkie age helps everything remain in perspective. As such, no major anomalies emerge. Optional English subtitles are provided while English for the hearing impaired subtitles have been included for the English language version.

Tony Rayns provides a commentary track which is balanced between discussing what is occurring in the film and the life of its director Josef von Sternberg. There's a lot of discussion of Sternberg, borrowing liberally from his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and some late talk of Dietrich.

Among the supplements are a half-hour video essay by Tag Gallagher entitled "Who Am I?" (30:01). It's easily up to Gallagher's usually strong standard. There's also a short interview excerpt with Marlene Dietrich from 1971, as well as her 1929 screen test. Three songs performed by Dietrich during a 1963 concert in Stockholm are here. She's shown (and heard) performing "Falling in Love Again," "Lola," and "You're the Cream in My Coffee."

Both the original theatrical and re-release trailers have been included.

Also certainly of note is the presence of the entire English language version of the film, which runs 104 minutes. It's presented in 1080p high definition on the Blu-ray disc. Though not really the preferred way to view The Blue Angel, this iteration is a natural curiosity and worth seeing, if nothing else, for comparison's sake.

The included booklet runs for 48 pages and consists of a lengthy and pertinent piece of writing by Josef von Sternberg as well as a timeline constructed by Werner Sudendorf detailing the film's production. Copious stills fill out the booklet.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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