Author: S.S. Prawer
Josef Von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel is a landmark film for many reasons: it was Germany’s first true sound feature, it was the film that launched the career of Marlene Dietrich (although she had already made a number of silent features which today are little know), her first film in which Dietrich collaborated with the man who became her mentor, Von Sternberg and is arguably perhaps the greatest of all German films. It was made at a time shortly after the Wall Street Crash, a period in Weimar Republic Germany in which street battles would commence between the communists and the fledgling and newly reformed Nazi party. Politics were never too far away from the film: both in production and, as some commentators and critics have noted, in the story and the characters of the film itself. Prawer is a veteran writer on German cinema and culture, especially Weimar cinema. Prawer is a Professor of German language and literature at the University of Oxford and has previously written a seminal book on the cinema of the period and its legacies: ‘Caligari’s Children: The Film as a Tale of Terror’. A writer so knowledgeable on the politics, literature and cinema of the period is essential here as Prawer looks in great length at the background to the film and the context in which it was made. He begins his book by looking at that iconic image of Marlene singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ while sat on a barrel, exposing her suspender and stocking thighs and wearing a gold or white top hat. He then goes on to discuss the semantics around the title of the film. To give some flavour to the background he perhaps makes a little too much of the economic climate in Germany at the time. The Wall Street Crash occurred in October 1929 and the film was released in January 1930. The effects of the Crash took time to gestate in Germany, although Germany had previously experienced the effects of an economic collapse with the hyper inflation of the early twenties.
The basic story of The Blue Angel is an old tale of a femme-fatale. It revolves around a Professor of English, Professor Rath (or Unrath to his students, meaning rubbish in German) who is unpopular with his students who frequent a local seedy beer hall/cabaret and swoon over the hall’s star, Lola Lola. Rath follows them there and proceeds to be intoxicated by the woman who is the very antithesis of his social standing and eventually marries her. Rath is fired from his job at the local gymnasium and travels with her and her troupe on tour only to eventually be cuckolded and reduced to a laughable clown.
Prawer does a good job throughout the book of swinging between the background politics, the films production and the mise-en-scene of each key scene and lays out the background to German theatre and its huge influences throughout the twenties. However, what he fails to mention in any great detail are the influences of Bertolt Brecht and the Berlin cabaret scene from which Dietrich emerged from. Only in the prologue does he mention the iconic image of Marlene that found itself emulated by Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972). For Prawer the scenes in The Blue Angel are not in a cabaret but a beer hall in a fictional provincial town that seems similar to writer Heinrich Mann’s childhood home of Lübeck. The chapter given the largest section is where he talks about the use of language in Germany’s first full sound film and how important the nuances of language are which don’t necessarily translate so well into English; even in the English sound version that was shot side by side with the German one. He also talks about the importance of Friedrich Hollander’s music, both incidental and that sung on the stage which makes for particularly fascinating reading, even if it is a little too technical in places. The final short chapter of the book gives over to talking about the English version, although it is the German one that is rightly given the focus of attention.
The Blue Angel was based off the novel ‘Professor Unrath’ by Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann) and Mann himself gave his nod to Sternberg’s adaptation. On its release it was widely received but dismissed and damned by the Far Right. However the film was made by UFA, the leading studio in Germany at the time and which owned and ran by Alfred Hugenburg, an industrialist with sympathies with the Far Right and soon to be a high profile member of the Nazi Party. Hugenburg dismissed many of those elements in the film that proved so difficult to the Far Right, but Von Sterberg by contrast condemned the Nazi party and Marlene herself kept quiet on the movement (the pair was enticed to Hollywood following this films success) and she was invited back to Nazi Germany by Joseph Goebbels in 1933 and ended up singing for the American troops between 1944-45. Both the Mann brothers by contrast were to be condemned by the Nazis, whereas the films other stars, Emil Jannings as the Professor and Hans Albers as Lola’s lover, Manzini went on to enjoy flourishing careers under The Third Reich.