The Downfall – The Blue Angel (1930)
This dark tale of love, morality, and obsession might seem trivial and antiquated in today’s world of highly eroticized and violent depictions of human interactions, but it still holds its charm. The film brings the nostalgia of black and white photography, vaudeville performances, and fallen women who dressed in the fishnet stockings and tutus captivated the audiences of small, often filthy establishments across Europe, at the beginning of the sound movies era.
The Blue Angel produced by Sternberg in 1930 was one of the first “talkies,” and it featured Marlene Dietrich’s song “Falling in Love Again” that was instrumental to her success. Here, Dietrich is just starting as an actress and hasn’t quite yet morphed into a later, androgynous version of herself that was a hallmark of her career.
Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is a woman who is fully aware of the effect she has on the local male segment of population. Like a magnet, she draws the youth from the community college, the various town folk seeking easy entertainment, and the random passersby to the Blue Angel, today’s version of a shabby and ill-reputed nightclub. Her sensual and smoky voice combined with her oozing sexuality enthralls the men and keeps them coming back to see her, night after night. It is no surprise that a local college professor, Immanuel Rath, on a quest to discipline his naughty students, falls under the charm of this seductive femme fatale.
A local community college educator in a small German town, circa 1930, was a persona of substantial respect and of a high social standing. Rath is characterized as a man of knowledge. A room he inhabits contains books stacked everywhere, and his fashion sense reflects his comfortable upper middle class status. But even his bookish interests and his social position cannot save him from the consuming passion for the flirtatious vaudeville starlet, Lola Lola. He falls for her, head over heels. As a result, his rather unorthodox love choice becomes a reason for his principal’s disdain and catapults him into the street, or rather into Lola Lola’s arms. The plurality of meanings of the word “fall” comes to mind when examining Mr. Rath’s predicament. He falls in love, and then falls from his headmaster’s grace, which eventually leads to his downfall.
Sternberg’s visual artistry matches that of Lola Lola’s undeniable charm. In the sharply defined world of black and white, the shadows and contrasts play a role, too, because there is no in-between, no moral ambiguity. German expressionism’s influence on Steinberg is discernible in the way the camera handles Rath walking down the street to the Blue Angel, a symbolic seat of sin, with Lola Lola’s lacy unmentionables in his pocket. The camera shots show him from a high angle and create a visually chilling effect of Rath’s descent into a hell-like locale. The place features an outlandish ship-inspired décor, with the cherubs and birds randomly suspended midair that contribute to the inferno-esque dimension of the Blue Angel. We, the audience, are well aware that Immanuel Rath enters the path of moral decline, even though he himself doesn’t know it yet.
We might ponder if the director’s goal was to tackle a theme of mid-life crisis of a man in a provincial little town, or to debase professor Rath as a representative of a particular social class. Having in mind that the script is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel “Professor Unrat,” and that the author was known for his critique of the power structures in Germany during the reign of William II, we might assume it is the latter. Professor Rath is a seemingly respectable member of his community, but upon a closer examination, he displays less than desirable qualities. He is pedantic and self-righteous in his pursuit to discipline his pupils, and his teaching style leaves much to improve, at least from a perspective of a modern scholar. As a representative of bourgeoisie Rath acts often pompous, and arrogant, and his existence is devoid of joie de vivre, unlike that of his love interest.
Lola Lola owns a bird that chirps happily in its cage, while Rath’s bird is dead. The fleeting sense of happiness when the light is filtering through a window in her room, her own cheerfulness, and sex appeal entice the professor, on the spur of the moment, to exchange his prudish lot for her unbound, gypsy-like existence. Their honeymoon looks promising, but already the next scene convinces us that his happiness is not meant to last. Soon enough, professor Rath is peddling his wife’s racy photos to a rowdy crowd for pennies. His appearance goes from a well-manicured to a ragged look, and he is distraught. As the time goes on, he becomes more and more disheveled and loses his sanity.
The last accord of his drama comes to a crescendo in the moment of a total humiliation for Rath, who, after many years of traveling with the troupe, is now forced to perform in his own hometown on a stage of the Blue Angel. As the locals gather to watch their former professor turned a clown, Rath catches a glimpse of a gallant making sexual moves on his wife, and Lola Lola accepting his flirtatious advances with a smile. His ruin is complete with the impresario’s demand that Rath imitate a rooster. Three times he sees his wife kissing a stranger. When he crows, the biblical connotation of Peter’s denial of Jesus comes to mind. Emil Jannings’ spectacular rendition of Rath’s mental ruin in this scene, coincidentally heralds the beginning of the decline of his popularity as an actor.
At the same time, this film establishes Dietrich as persona whose mark on the movie industry is paramount, and whose style, sophistication, and an exotic European background make her a lasting phenomenon. The Blue Angel deserves its place in the hall of fame for setting Marlene Dietrich on a path to stardom.
© Monika Mraovic 2019