At the end of The Blue Angel, screening Thursday at the McNay Museum, the camera tracks slowly away from a lone man sitting at a desk in a darkened classroom. The scene not only conveys the unbearable tragedy of a wasted life, but also anticipates the disintegration of the most civilized society in Europe. Filmed in Germany in 1930, the year that the Nazi Party became the second largest bloc in the Reichstag, The Blue Angel is a study in the degradation of a respected professor undone by his passion for a fickle cabaret singer. Played by Marlene Dietrich, Lola Lola is the quintessential femme fatale, and she charms Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) into sacrificing both his exalted status in the community and his self-esteem. Rath’s own students, a rowdy fascimile of boorish, sadistic Hitler Youth, turn on him. The culture of Goethe, Kant, and Bach proves powerless to counter the primitive allure of brute instinct.
Josef von Sternberg, the Austrian émigré who returned to Europe from Hollywood to make the first German talkie, shot each scene twice, first in German and then in English. Both versions exhibit the fastidious attention to visual detail characteristic of the late silent era and of Expressionist theater while also integrating the new medium of sound. Lola Lola’s haunting siren song warns: “Men swirl around me like moths around the light/And if they burn themselves up, well, I can’t help it!” The recurrent sounds of birds are a reminder that, no matter how high a man aspires to fly, he cannot deny his biological basis. Surveying the wreckage of a once-proud man, Kiepert (Kurt Gerron), the stage manager who recycles the disgraced professor as a nightclub clown, surveys the rubble of a once-proud man and muses: “All that for the sake of a woman.”
Von Sternberg was so enamored of Dietrich that, in one of the most productive pairings in cinematic history, he went on to make six additional films with her. A star was born, and Jannings knew it. During the scene in which Rath, cuckolded by the vulgar woman he has demeaned himself to marry, tries to strangle Lola Lola, Jannings had to be pulled off Dietrich before he did the lovely upstart actual harm. Dietrich of course went on to a spectacular career as actress and chanteuse, while Jannings became a lackey of the Nazi régime. But in The Blue Angel, he masters little gestures — wiping his glasses, blowing his nose — to create a lasting portrait of human wreckage.
The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel)
Dir. Josef von Sternberg; writ. Carl Zuckmayer, based on a novel by Heinrich Mann; feat. Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron. (NR) (1930, 94 min.)
Get Reel Film series
$5 (free for museum members)
6:30pm Thu, April 28, McNay Museum’s Chiego Lecture Hall, 6000 N New Braunfels
(210) 824-5368, mcnayart.org