DirectorJosef von Sternberg
Release Date(s)1930 (December 4, 2012)
Studio(s)UFA (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: F
The image of resplendent, young chanteuse Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel – clad in a top hat, silk stockings and high heels, provocatively holding court at the nightspot of that name – was so indelible that her iconic performance has eclipsed the movie itself. Kino has recently issued the original German version of The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) on Blu-ray, allowing for the opportunity to rediscover the film, and Dietrich’s bravura performance, anew. (The film was shot simultaneously in German and English versions.)
A stark morality tale loosely based on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat (literal translation: Professor Garbage), The Blue Angel tells the story of Professor Immanuel Rath, portrayed by Emil Jannings. (1928’s The Last Command earned Jannings the very first Best Actor Academy Award, but his leading roles in Nazi propaganda films saw his career end post-World War II.) A professor at a small college in Germany in the mid-1920s, Rath discovers his students are hiding postcards depicting the nightclub singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and going to The Blue Angel to see her perform. The stuffy Rath decides to visit the club to see for himself what all the fuss is about, and becomes infatuated with her debauched persona. This, of course, leads him down a depraved path with grave consequences. Von Sternberg’s film has historical significance for several reasons. The first major German sound picture, it propelled Dietrich to international stardom and gave her a signature song in the form of Friedrich Hollaender’s “Falling in Love Again.” Dietrich also began a fruitful but complex collaboration with von Sternberg as a result of The Blue Angel’s success.
A then-timely warning about the dangers of decadence (read: drinking and sex) and being lead astray into such behavior, The Blue Angel is far from subtle. The path to the Blue Angel is down a dark and dirty path lined with shadows and crooked buildings. When Rath first approaches the nightclub, a horn is heard as if warning of impending danger. As his relationship and eventual marriage to Lola continues, he becomes more and more unkempt, and eventually, rather insane. By the time she commits her final act of betrayal, he has literally become a clown in a club act who can do little more than crow like a hen before escaping into the night to die in the darkened classroom of his old college.
The Blue Angel mesmerizingly showcases the very acts and nightclub performances it is decrying. Controversial in 1930 for its frank depiction of sexuality on screen, Lola is alluring as she walks around backstage in only her undergarments. The film was eventually banned in Germany under Hitler and had some material taken out of the English version. This dichotomy between repression and open sexuality amongst other pursuits was playing out very much in real-life Germany at the time and The Blue Angel is a vivid evocation of the struggle. The debauchery of the period and setting would later be explored to even more memorable effect in the Broadway musical and film Cabaret.
Jannings gives a detailed performance, and evinces good chemistry with Dietrich despite their reported clashes offscreen. That said, Dietrich certainly give the more electrifying performance. Her portrayal of the licentious Lola makes it easy to see why Rath would fall for her, but she also makes it abundantly clear to the audience that she will eventually tire of him. That von Sternberg and audiences alike became enamored of Dietrich is no surprise after viewing her work here. Jannings finely depicts both Rath’s initial fussiness and slide into degradation well, but the veteran of the silent era does so with less subtlety than Dietrich in her breakthrough performance. Jannings is only slightly hampered in his portrayal by the way the film glosses over major moments. Rath’s dismissal from teaching, for one, is handled off-screen between scenes. (Whether he is fired or quits his job to follow Lola on her traveling act is never made clear.) More focus on the early days of Rath’s and Lola’s relationship might have given Jannings more juicy material with which to play.
Music also plays a key role in the film. Several songs by composer Friedrich Hollaender are performed by Lola and others during their nightclub acts, the most famous being her much-parodied “Falling in Love Again.” The song took on a life of its own, having been sung live by The Beatles and on record by everybody from Doris Day to Christina Aguilera. Hollaender took Dietrich’s limitations as a vocalist into account when writing his score, and shaped it to her distinctively mannered style. Although The Blue Angel is not a musical proper, the songs performed do comment on the action, as when Lola sings of falling in love or to be wary of blonde women.
Kino Classics Blu-ray presents the 107-minute film in HD with a 1.19:1 ratio and a German LPCM 2.0 soundtrack with optional English subtitles. Kino states that the movie has been restored from archival 35mm elements, and the noticeably upgraded picture is mostly crisp and clean. Some imperfections, stains and scratches do show up from time to time. However, given the age of the film, this is undoubtedly the best it has looked in quite some time. The sound is also clear with only some hiss present occasionally due to age.
The biggest disappointment with this release is the complete lack of extras on the disc. Kino had previously released The Blue Angel on DVD in a two-disc edition. That release presented the German version on one disc and the shorter English version on the other. Kino’s previous edition also included a commentary track, biographies, and Dietrich’s screen test and several concert performances. The last extras are perhaps the biggest losses here. It is quite unfortunate that Kino has chosen not to carry any of those extras over to this new Blu-ray release. That said, Kino has announced a deluxe 2-disc BD version of The Blue Angel to be released in December 2013 which will surely supplant this no-frills edition.
Although The Blue Angel might come across today as heavy-handed, it is certainly worth seeking out for Dietrich’s performance. If you are a fan of the film, this new Blu-Ray edition does make the film look better than it ever has. Unfortunately, due to the dearth of bonus material, this is not a definitive release. So hold onto your old 2-DVD set and get this for the improved sound and audio – or wait to see what will be on Kino’s upcoming 2-BD release.
- Joe Marchese