Den Blå Engel
The twenties and thirties are full of movies with leads that fare badly and suffer a terrible ends. I do not know if it is the influence of the depression or The Book just picks out these films to be particularly artistic. In any case “Der Blaue Engel” falls safely within this category. What makes this one stand out is that the lead with the miserable fate is an absolute ass, the agent of the deroute is more interesting than normal and that despite the tragedy the film is not without humor. And of course the talented combination of Josef von Sternberg, Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.
Yes, we are back in good ol’ pre-war Germany, the home of so many good movies during the golden age before the nazi regime quelled it all. And if you are expecting expressionism, interesting camera angles, lots of shadow effects and excellent direction you will not be disappointed here. Add a (quite) a few German clichés like the dark kneipe with beer drinking oversize cabaret actresses or the professor shouting “Halt, Halt” or “SIT!” at his students expecting DICIPLINE! from them, you got it about right.
The first time I saw “Der Blaue Engel” it was actually a painful experience. No matter how bad they are, nobody deserves the humiliation and degradation Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath (Jannnings) is suffering. Second time however I focused more on his character and by all that is holy he has it coming. Rath is a certified ass. He is the teacher from hell at the local high school, a true believer in the black school (I do not even know if that concept exists in English). He is only interested in obedience and his manner of teaching is to beat it into the students. There is a hilarious moment in an English class where he is shouting at a student for failing to pronounce the English article “The”: “Ze, ze, ze, can you not hear?”.
Of course his students react to this abuse in the way any teenager does, by rebellion. The latest thing is that they go to the local night club, which in this case is a real German kneipe, not unlike the bar used by von Sternberg in “Docks of New York”, where the wet dream of the students, Lola Lola (Dietrich) is performing.
Rath, getting a hint of what is going on, ventures to this place of lust and filth to extricate the boys and teach them (another) lesson of DICIPLINE. But instead of catching the boys Rath himself is caught by Lola. I will have to say that this is through no fault of Lola. Rath is simply a dirty old man at heart and also a very naïve and foolish man. He quickly (mis)reads Lola’s friendship as pure love and affection and he is sold. Already here this is so pathetic that it in all its tragedy is also funny and a bit sweet. He gives up his teaching job and marries Lola, clearly with no idea what he is getting himself into.
But what does a travelling show need a pompous professor for? Absolutely nothing. Instead he is given the most demeaning jobs like selling provocative photos of his wife and dressing like a clown as an assistant to the managers magic show, where his moment of glory is a shriek “Kikkelikii” when the magician extracts an egg from his nose and bang it on his forehead. Even Lola gets fed up with him and he is really reduced to nothing, not least in his own mind when the show returns to Der Blaue Engel and the manager announces to the town that their professor is back in town.
Rath (or Unrath, garbage, as his students call him) faces the ultimate humiliation, stripped of all power and dignity, facing his old neighbors and former students dressed as a clown with egg in his face while a “strong man” is shamelessly seducing his wife. He breaks and anything else would be strange and I will leave it to the reader to find out how that turns out.
Emil Jannings is really good. He is totally convincing as this tyrannical but also pathetic fool. There is some resemblance to his part in “Der Letzte Man”, where he also was a pompous, if a lot more sympathetic, fool who loses everything, especially his dignity. Except in “Der Blaue Engel” there is no recue from a sympathetic producer, no sweet prize at the end, only ruin and despair.
I have a more difficult relationship with Marlene Dietrich. She is good here, but she has more or less annoyed me in all the parts I have seen her in since. At least in German her singing is okay and her acting too. The signature song of the movie has a nasty way of insinuating itself into my mind so it cannot be that bad, yet she does not feel exactly right. Maybe it has to do with fashions. She would not really make it as a hot dish today and her sympathy, at least in the beginning, for the pathetic old pig Rath is… unexplainable.
But that is not a major problem. “Der Blaue Engel” is a highlight among many excellent movies of early German cinema and highly enjoyable if tragic. Hey, those beers look good!