The Blue Angel is based on a best-selling Expressionist novel of the day, Professor Unrat (1905) by Thomas Mann’s older brother Heinrich. At the Blue Angel, a small-town music hall, locals can rub shoulders with the traveling vaudeville demimonde, including Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). The novel, set in late Wilhelminian Germany (the Teutonic version of Victorian pomp, prudery, and respectability), translates superbly into the Weimar-era UFA-Paramount co-production, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Its success lay, in part, in the Weimar zeitgeist–Heinrich’s political views and socially critical fiction proved to be in tune with the modernist artistic energy, the politically capacious society, and the decadent sensibilities following World War I in the new Weimar democracy.
Checking up on his errant students, Prof. Dr. Immanuel Rath follows them one evening to The Blue Angel (“The Drunken Angel”). The impossibly stiff, patriarchal college professor Rath ( “good advice” or “city alderman”) is smitten by the sexual charms of cabaret chanteuse Lola Lola, who sings “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,” coyly giving fair warning that “I’m Nothing But a Sex Machine.” Thus begins the professor’s fall, as foreshadowed in his students’ sardonic nickname for him, Professor Unrat (translated as “Garbage,” but connotatively “Asshole”). He will end up a drunk, a clown, and cuckolded backstage, while performing as a buffoon before an SRO crowd on the show’s return stop in his hometown. This is schadenfreude at its public best.
The film was originally designed as a vehicle for Emil Jannings (one of Germany’s all-time revered film actors) in the lead role of Immanuel Rath. Instead, Josef von Sternberg’s first collaboration with Marlene Dietrich launched a super-star’s career. Combining a feminine first name and a masculine surname, Dietrich wowed audiences world-wide with her on-screen persona as the original gender-bending femme fatale, “insolently indifferent to male sexual debasement” (in the words of critic Gaylyn Studlar). Her sexually ambiguous and stylish on-stage cross-dressing has been lovingly copied and spoofed ever since–from Liza Minelli’s version in Cabaret (1972) to Madeline Kahn’s send-up in Blazing Saddles (1974), even making a guest appearance in pop music, in the Kinks’ “Lola” (1970).
The Blue Angel tracesthe unmaking of traditional German society, embodying the newly democratizing impulses of modernist experimentation, sexual liberation, and challenges to the social class structure. It is a seminal film from the short-lived German rival to the Hollywood system. The print has been painstakingly restored, the soundtrack unmuddied, and readable yellow subtitles added. The Blue Angel remains a cineaste’s delight. for all time.