The Blue Angel (German: Der blaue Engel) is a 1930 German tragicomedic film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich and Kurt Gerron. Written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann – with uncredited contributions by Sternberg – it is based on Heinrich Mann's 1905 novel Professor Unrat (Professor Garbage) and set in Weimar Germany. The Blue Angel presents the tragic transformation of a respectable professor to a cabaret clown and his descent into madness. The film is the first feature-length German full-talkie and brought Dietrich international fame. In addition, it introduced her signature song, Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Liebmann's "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)". It is considered to be a classic of German cinema.
The film was shot simultaneously in German- and English-language versions, although the latter version was thought lost for many years. The German version is considered to be "obviously superior"; it is longer and not marred by actors struggling with their English pronunciation.
Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is an esteemed educator at the local Gymnasium (a college preparatory high school) in Weimar Germany. The character is crafted to embody the essence of the provincial Weimar German lower middle classes; the "Petite bourgeois", whose politico-economic, and moral ideology is wholly a performance imitated from their interpretation of; and their subservience to; the mores of the haute bourgeoisie, which they the petite bourgeoisie seek to identify themselves with; and who, in bourgeois morality, they strive to imitate.
Motivated by this, Rath (in his role that he believes is that of guardian of the purported standards of the haute bourgeoisie; through the moral education of youth, at the Gymnasium) punishes several of his students for circulating photographs of the beautiful Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the headliner for the local cabaret, "The Blue Angel". Hoping to catch the boys at the club, Rath goes there later that evening, to meet and confront Lola herself. His experience at the cabaret is however, not what he had expected. And his sense of "mission", as the guardian of moral rectitude and the mores of the haute bourgeoisie, simply vanishes, as the fiction that it always was.
Rath's all consuming desire for Lola, becomes his new personal mission. When he returns to the night club the following evening to return a pair of panties that were smuggled into his coat by one of his students, he ends up staying the night with her. The next morning, reeling (yet liberated from his self-inflicted false imprisonment) from his night of passion, Rath arrives late to school to find his classroom in chaos and the principal furious with his déclassé behavior.
Rath's position at the academy becomes untenable. He can't pretend to his students and fellow faculty that he disdains low morals while spending time with a woman who is young enough to be his granddaughter. So he eventually resigns from his position at the academy to marry Lola (to be with her sexually; and to observe certain legal and moral practicalities, all in pursuit of a now no longer repressed lust for women).
But of course their happiness is short-lived, as Rath becomes humiliatingly dependent on Lola. After several years he is forced to take a position as a clown in Lola's cabaret troupe to pay the bills. His growing insecurities about Lola's profession as a "shared woman" eventually consume him with lust and jealousy. The troupe returns to his hometown and The Blue Angel, where he is ridiculed and berated by the patrons, the very people he himself used to deride. As Rath performs his last act, he witnesses his wife embrace and kiss the strongman Mazeppa, her new love interest, and is enraged to the point of insanity. He attempts to strangle Lola but is beaten down by the other members of the troupe and locked in a straitjacket.
Later that night, Rath is freed and makes his way towards his old classroom. Rejected, humiliated, and destitute, he dies in remorse, clenching the desk at which he once taught.
Sternberg called the story "the downfall of an enamored man", and he calls Rath "...a figure of self-satisfied dignity brought low." Some critics saw the film as an allegory for pre-war Germany, but Sternberg was very clear that he did not intend to make a political stand: "The year was 1929, Germany was undivided, although the real Germany, its schools and other places pictured in the film were not German and reality failed to interest me".
Emil Jannings had asked Sternberg to direct him in his first sound picture, although Sternberg and Jannings had clashed on the set of their previous collaboration, The Last Command (1928), and Sternberg had vowed never to work with the actor again. The following year, however, he and Jannings were reconciled, and at the invitation of Erich Pommer, head of UFA, they began to collaborate on a film about Rasputin. Sternberg was less than intrigued by this prospect, however, and as an alternative he suggested the idea of an adaptation of the Heinrich Mann story Professor Unrat, a 1905 satire about the hypocrisy of the German middle class. Sternberg restructured the story to fit his tastes – simplifying moral themes and emphasizing the anguish of the teacher. As a result, the second half of the book was not used at all, so that the film's ending is entirely new. The film adapted the original story's socioeconomic themes to fit the perceived and real decline of the German middle class in 1920s Germany. While Rath represents urban Berlin's middle class, Lola Lola, who speaks with a Berlin accent, represents the lower class from Berlin's suburbs.
Because the German and English versions of the film were shot simultaneously, the actors were required to play every scene twice. This was a very common practice of major studios in the early sound era, given the technical difficulties of dubbing and the desire of the studios to be able to sell their films in multiple international markets.
The Blue Angel is best known for introducing Marlene Dietrich to worldwide attention, although other performers were initially considered for the role, including Trude Hesterberg (a friend of Heinrich Mann), Brigitte Helm, and Lucie Mannheim. Käthe Haack had already been signed to play the part before Sternberg met Dietrich and transferred the part to her. Dietrich's portrayal of an uninhibited woman not only established her stardom but also established a modern embodiment of a vixen. Lola Lola's lusty songs, written by Friedrich Hollaender (music) and Robert Liebmann (lyrics), slither their way into Rath's heart, entrapping him and sealing his fate. The story's melancholic simplicity adds to the beauty of Sternberg's most remembered work in both Germany and America. Dietrich's radiant sensuality might be blamed for the censorship the film faced in Pasadena, California. C.V. Cowan, censor for Pasadena, found many scenes offensive and chose to cut them, though Jason Joy, the nation's censor, did not. Reaction to the censor's seal for the recut film was not good, and the theater removed the censorship statement.
During filming, although he was still the nominal star of the film, Jannings could see the growing closeness between Sternberg and Dietrich and the care the director took in presenting her, and the actor became jealous, threatening to strangle the actress and misbehaving on the set. The Blue Angel was to be his last great cinematic moment; it was also one of UFA's last great films, as many of the studio's major talents left Germany for Hollywood, including Sternberg and Dietrich, who were met on the dock in New York City by Sternberg's wife, who served legal papers on Dietrich for "alienation of affection". Sternberg and his wife were divorced shortly after.
The German version is much better known. The English-language version was considered a lost film for many years until a print was discovered in a German film archive and restored. The restored English version had its U.S. premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on 19 January 2009 as part of the "Berlin and Beyond" film festival.
The screen test was believed to be lost in the war, as Marlene noted in the 1984 documentary Marlene, with the director and her former co-star in Judgment at Nuremberg Maximilian Schell remarking that he had looked for it extensively to no avail. The test was found in an Austrian film archive in 1992, shortly before Dietrich died in May, and is viewable on YouTube. In the screen test she is distracted by odious improvisational piano playing to the song she was singing, "You're the Cream in My Coffee", a contemporary English song. After three attempts and continually berating the pianist, she accedes to performing a German song he knows, "Wer wird denn weinen, wenn man auseinander geht" (Who will cry when you go apart) by Hugo Hirsch.