The Blue Angel (Der blaue engel)

The Blue Angel

I can’t help it.

Germany’s first sound picture, The Blue Angel was also the film that brought Marlene Dietrich to international attention. For good reason, it seems; here, she plays a risqué showgirl to whom men throw themselves at – it seems to be the very making of a breakout female role. It had been a while since I’d seen an early sound film, so I settled down and tried to ready myself for a classical, old-time style of filmmaking. It was a good thing I did, too; this just-out-of-the-silent-era way of acting and filmmaking is on full display with The Blue Angel, but there’s still a lot to like about this, especially the bits that show promise of the future of film at the time.

Emil Jannings is Immanuel Rath, a professor at a local college, whose students respect him as far as they can throw him. He catches some of them with photos and playbills of a local burlesque performer named Lola Lola, and decides to catch them in the act of going to see her at the nightclub, The Blue Angel. Instead, he ends up falling for Lola Lola herself, and the film tracks the rapid descent of a man at the top of the academic world into life in the gutter. First off, it’s been so long since I’ve seen a film by Josef von Sternberg that I essentially have nothing to compare this to, but my memories of Shanghai Express and The Docks of New York seem to suffice enough for me to realize that The Blue Angel offers slightly less than these two films do. There was a grand, sophisticated, exacting air about von Sternberg’s other work that is missing here; here, he is content to merely tell the story of the film, and let that stand on its own two feet. He doesn’t seem to realize, however, that the film only barely manages to do so, thanks to being bereft of anything else to help support it. The acting was also a little wonky; it was as if most of the players hadn’t fully made the shift into sound pictures yet, and were still acting as if the audience had nothing to go on but the visuals. Dietrich knows how to act in a single performance that combines the audio and visual; Jannings, it seems, has yet to fully grasp how to combine these two aspects of acting into a centrally realized performance, though from the visual side he still has enough skill to carry the picture whenever Dietrich isn’t around.

I really wanted this to have more to offer me, but it didn’t. It was content to merely be a good picture, and leave it at that. I can give it good marks for being a good picture, but nothing more; the film either doesn’t try to put itself out there in the realm of potential greatness, or doesn’t know how to and is thus relegated to doing things the way that it’s used to doing them. This one actually has two different versions, one filmed in German and the other in English. I’m told there are slight differences between the two, but not enough to where you have two completely different films with the same title. I watched the native German version, so who knows how much better (or worse) it may be if you seek out the film in English, but the question still remains as to whether or not you should even seek this out to begin with. It won’t do you wrong if you decide to, but neither do you need to decide to.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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2 thoughts on “The Blue Angel (Der blaue engel)

  1. Well, the English version is terrible, so you chose wisely.
    I think you need to compare this film to other very early sound films. At this point filmmakers threw away all they had learned about on location shots and moved into sound studios and very static acting and filming. The fact that this film do move around and does care for more than just dialogue deserves some credit. Sternberg in Docks of New York was silent at its peak and at Shanghai Express he had finally learned to use the sound media well. This one is a transition film and if you take a look a the Academy nominees of those years Der Blaue Engel do quite well. Of course with M and All Quiet on the Western Front an entirely new standard was set, but we are not there quite yet.

    • Yeah, it might’ve been a little unfair of me to expect another M or All Quiet with this one, but still; that this is basically a silent film that pulled back the reins that lead to true greatness because it still wasn’t sure of how to use this new-fangled technology called sound doesn’t really make for “must see” viewing in my eyes. it’s the same reason The Jazz Singer wasn’t all that great, and that it hasn’t held up against other films, like All Quiet and M, that really take advantage of the new technology. That said, you might be right; compared to other early talkies, this might look a little brighter in hindsight, but right now I’m only going by the 1001 list, which generally excludes those “just enough to get by” films in favor of the truly great, and while this one showed small hints of it, it didn’t have enough of it to lift it above the line of qualification for the Book to me.

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