The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
The complex German personality, with its susceptibility to authoritarianism and idolatry, and its courting of humiliation and defeat: this is the theme of The Blue Angel, which Josef von Sternberg, Viennese-born but who grew up in the Bronx, made in Berlin before returning to Hollywood. Its drama, effortlessly revelatory of the social psychology that helps explain the rise of fascism in Germany, covers the years 1925-1929.
Immanuel Rath teaches at a college in a small provincial town. He bullies his students, inviting them into his shabby living quarters for special chastisements, but harbors a sentimental streak; the one recipient of his affection, a pet bird that stopped singing long ago, has just died. An itinerant troupe of entertainers is at the club called The Blue Angel, and its star attraction, a sexy singer billed as Lola Lola, the professor feels, has been corrupting his students. He confronts her, having descended the corkscrew staircase from the club’s stage to Lola Lola’s temporary boudoir/dressing room, and, like a schoolboy, falls in love. Silently, the troupe’s clown repeatedly taunts him, in full make-up, with forlorn and almost pitying looks. Professor Rath marries Lola Lola, forsaking the dignity of his profession to join the troupe. His wife proves unfaithful, and he replaces the troupe’s painted clown.
The village sets, with their Caligari-like distortions, key us into the film’s psychological nature. Equally discordantly non-realistic are the shifts between chaotic noise and sheer silence at The Blue Angel whenever the door to Lola Lola’s quarters opens or closes. Highly expressive, Sternberg’s aim is psychological realism.
As Rath, Emil Jannings is superb, and her phenomenal performance as impudent Lola Lola, which made Marlene Dietrich a star, grows richer and more ambiguous and provocative with each fresh viewing.
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