Reading subsequent history back into a film is dangerous, if sometimes inevitable. The Blue Angel, despite director Josef von Sternberg’s insistence otherwise, cannot be viewed removed from Germany’s descent into facism and war that marked the decade following the film’s premiere. It’s not just that the movie was shot in Germany (though an English-language version, which I have not seen, exists), or that its three leads wound up taking very different paths through Nazism’s reign*, but that it is essentially a film about a facist and his destruction. A destruction that comes about at the expense of his own masculine self-conception.
*Marlene Dietrich, of course, ended up a star in Hollywood. Emil Jannings, who plays Professor Rath, became a willing propaganda tool of Goebbels. Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the magician, was killed at Auschwitz.
Early sound films like The Blue Angel, produced before sound mixing became more sophisticated, can sometimes exist in an odd aesthetic space. They don’t follow a strictly silent aesthetic that favors a more abstracted continuity style – The Blue Angel follows typical Hollywood continuity rules from this time, even if it has a few German Expressionistic flourishes – but the aural universe is limited enough and the compositional choices crafted such that one feels ready to fall into a silent movie at any moment.
Take this early pair of scenes. The first finds Professor Rath, played by Emil Jannings, in his apartment with his housekeeper. It’s a quiet, no-nonsense introductory scene as sits down for breakfast and then discovers that his pet bird has died. It’s perhaps hard to describe the full affect in a text-bound medium, but suffice to say that while none of these shots are doing anything unusual, the sound mix lacks the sophistication one will find in later talkies.
This is not a fault. Indeed the following classroom scene has much more noise, even if here the focus is less on following a character through a space than in isolating individuals for their actions and reactions to a moment (with the iris framing the shots) – a visual choice much more common in silent film.
What Sternberg is doing, perhaps unintentionally, is navigating a shifting visual style by pulling on old and new traditions simultaneously. If Rath is a man who ends up unmoored in his personal and professional lives, we see early on that such an outcome was always present in the cinematic space around him.
But before that can happen, we learn that Rath centers his own sense of self in authoritarian silence. When Rath enters the classroom, it falls silent. Any trace of empathy he showed to his bird vanishes. He is very stern, more interested in discipline than education. When I said it’s dangerous to read history back onto a film, it’s because of moments like this:
Those young men in Germany in 1930 are going to be, in a few years’ time, standing at attention in a similar formation here:
We never learn anything of Rath’s politics. But he’s just the kind of man who would no doubt feel comfortable in the ultra-disciplined ranks of Nuremberg. Silence is his weapon; it is how he deploys his authority. When the sound world of the film interferes with this authority, the film truly takes off. The allure of sound proves to be his undoing.
When Rath arrives at the eponymous nightclub, there is of course much more noise. The chaotic atmosphere here, particularly backstage, is at odds with the quiet and disciplined man Rath wishes to be. The visual space, too, allows Sternberg to indulge himself as nearly Lynchian levels of absurdity intrude upon his exasperated protagonist.
That’s a bear, in case you can’t tell, quickly moving across the room. Since this is supposed be a troupe of performers, the action is diegetic, if absurd. Sternberg retains just the right cinematic objectivity to render this world slightly strange but believable.
A shot like the one above, where Rath literally looks into the face of his future, could be heavy-handed if not handled appropriately. As directed, it’s a funny shot but remains slightly disturbing in this same slightly surreal way as the rest of the nightclub action.
But back to the sound. If Rath’s sterness and masculine is buttressed by his silence, Marlene Dietrich, in her first major film role, provides the sensual alternative with her voice as Lola Lola, the cabaret singer.
On stage, she flirts with Rath (she’s the only performer of the bunch with real presence and verve) and backstage she banters with him and Kiepert, the show’s manager and magician. Some of her dialogue even feels like it would be at home in the Hollywood screwball comedies that would become popular later that decade. As Rath falls for her, he remains mostly silent, awed and gawking. It is Dietrich who pulls him along into this new world with the power of her voice. Once she has seduced him, Rath quickly loses his composure, his job, his sense of purpose, and very quickly ends up following Lola Lola and her troupe around the country trying to impress her.
The Blue Angel is not directly about how to destroy or pre-empt fascism, but it is about the insecurities surrounding masculinity and control which underlie a fascist personality, and what would happen if those latent insecurities were exploited and ridiculed. Rath is a proto-Facist, and his “decline” is, if not outright celebrated in the film, not really a thing to be sad about, either.
Perhaps the intention is for us to feel sorry for Rath as he gradually becomes emasculated. That would be the typical way of reading this type of plot, but I find that hard to do because of both how that downfall is portrayed and how much sympathy we are supposed to feel for him before hand. In terms of the latter, I personally find it hard to pity Rath, partially because the concept of “emasculation” appears ridiculous to me, but also because he’s so clearly the least interesting of the major characters. Dietrich is a refreshingly independent and sure-footed woman; Kiepert is also a funny and dynamic performer. They both respect Rath, though perhaps not in the way he wants or desires.
As for his portrayal, Rath’s downfall is not tragic but pathetic. This is encapsulated in the best shot of the film. It occurs toward the end, marking Rath’s full transition into a clown and magician’s assistant. It’s a long shot, held for over a minute on a mirror with hardly any sound, as Rath applies the cosmetic symbols of his failure.
Out of time when first presented (no establishing shots precede this), the shot is a silent film moment if there ever was one. It is also the one moment Rath has to take stock of his situation, and either come to terms with it or change. He does neither.
Mirrors, after all, are a popular place for movie characters to confront themselves. Sometimes characters see a truth, but more often they see a fantasy of their own construction. Sometimes they see nothing at all.
Aggressively framed and held, like a long close-up in a silent film, the mirror forces one to witness oneself. Its introspective qualities do nothing for Rath. Before long he is back on the stage and without agency. His own silence is irrelevant; he goes mad surrounded by noise. The hyper-masculine ethos which drives fascist politics would have no use for such a gaze, either.