The Blue Angel (1930)

Yep. 1930.

This is widely considered to be the first, major German “talkie,” as the kids back then called them, and a lot of the photography and physical movements still echo the silent era.

The film follows the life of a pompous, sort of prissy Gymnasium professor named Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings). (note: In Germany, “Gymnasium” is an odd sort of college prep high school/junior college hybrid, not a place for P.E., as it is here)  Professor Rath’s students don’t like him, for the most part, nor do they really respect him. One day, Herr Professor discovers some rather racy postcards featuring the leggy nightclub performer, Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), who is performing at a local cabaret called The Blue Angel. Herr Rath goes to the cabaret to catch his students in the act, as it were.  A rather comical exchange occurs, forcing the Professor to return the next night. He falls in love with Lola Lola, and she inexplicably seems to fall for him. He leaves his Gymnasium, and goes on the cabaret circuit with Lola.

Times are good for a while. Somehow, Herr Rath’s humor earns him a place in the revue as a clown. His debut, damn the Glück, will be back at The Blue Angel, in front of his former pupils, and half the town as well.

Lola Lola starts flirting with another performer, which pushes the former Professor over the edge.

He was already going crazy, though. Some part of him still retained the fussy pride he took in being an educator: even if his students didn’t necessarily respect him, they still stood up when he entered the room. He still had power and a sense of order in his world.

There’s a line in “Inglourious Basterds,” where Fredrick Zoller introduces Emil Jannings as ‘The greatest actor in the world.”

I have to admit, for the first half of “The Blue Angel,” I didn’t see it. Holy Scheiße, though. When you watch the changes Immanuel Rath undergoes from beginning to end, Fredrick Zoller nailed it: Emil Jannings was bloody brilliant. I equate his performance with doing Jaegermeister shots: everything’s perfectly normal, then WHAP, somebody hits you upside the head with a 2X4. Brilliant, and without that horrible taste.

Marlene Dietrich was also amazing. She had a bubbly effervescence I’d never seen from her before. I have a hard time watching her, because of Lilli von Schtupp, Madeline Khan’s spot-on Marlene Dietrich parody in “Blazing Saddles.” At this stage–in 1930–Ms Dietrich wasn’t world-weary and draggy, like she was by “Judgment at Nuremberg” in the early 1960’s. That said, I swear the stage sets and Lola Lola’s costumes perfectly wesembled–damn, sorry! REsembled–what Lilli von Schtupp wore in “Blazing Saddles.”

This film’s production year–1930–kept popping into my head as I watched. “The Blue Angel” has some really funny moments, and some of the cabaret scenes are more licentious than you’d expect from a film that old. This film was made 82 years ago. It was one of the highlights of the Weimar Republic’s film output. A decade later, some guy named Goebbels was running the show.

I would recommend this film, simply because I enjoyed its humor and the story. Once I saw exactly how awesome Emil Jannings’s performance was–and you can’t really get a feel for it till the final act–I couldn’t recommend this enough.

Grade: A-

(notes: there are several different versions of this film available. The one I watched was the 1:47 in German. There’s also a two-hour plus German version, and an English version–not dubbed, but actually filmed in English with Jannings and Dietrich. Jannings was finished in Hollywood when films went from silent to sound, because his German accent was so thick, so this might not be your best bet. Also, Emil Jannings won the first ever Best Actor Oscar a couple of years before this.)

Extra Credit: (the review is over; you don’t have to read this) I did a little research as to how these two German actors survived during The Third Reich, which took hold over the following years.

Here’s Ms Dietrich:

She is in Europe, signing an American soldier’s cast. She became an American citizen, and was fervently anti-Nazi. She was one of the first Hollywood stars to campaign for War Bonds, and she actually rebuffed Nazi attempts to sign her on as a spy against America. When she made “Judgment at Nuremberg,” she kept getting pissed at one scene her character plays, where she explains to Spencer Tracy that most Germans had no idea that the concentration camps, etc, were operating. Ms Dietrich considered that to be a huge load of horse-shit, and it sickened her to have to say what she was certain were lies.

How did Herr Jannings fare during The Third Reich?

That’s him in the middle row, smiling pleasantly next to Hitler’s #2 guy, as they cruise in the boat with the Swastika flag on the stern.

Very different paths, indeed. Jannings may have ended up as a shill for The Third Reich, but he was a damned good actor in his day, and he hit a tape-measure shot in “The Blue Angel.”

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