Saturday, November 5, 2011

Herr Kurtz's Legacy

Film: Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

If you took German at Wheaton North in the 1980s, you could guarantee that once a year he’d show you Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). I’m not sure why he showed us this film other than the fact that it was in German and available. Honestly, I’d have preferred to have watched Das Boot. But no matter.

Der Blaue Engel tells the story of Professor Doktor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a professor at the local preparatory school. He discovers at the beginning of the film that his students (who seem to be of disturbingly varying age) are almost to a man obsessed with a woman named Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), a performer at the local seedy cabaret club, Der Blaue Engel. He goes to the club that night and finds himself entranced.

It’s worth noting at this point that for the current age, Marlene Dietrich is a bit zaftig. However, she’s downright skinny compared with most of the women on stage. Some of them are a bit plump and a couple of them are essentially barrel-shaped. In this group, she’s anorexic.

Regardless, Rath goes back the next night, again ostensibly to track down his misbehaving students who should be concentrating more on their studies. But in reality, he’s there to see Lola Lola. We find out that she’s a bit more than a just a cabaret performer when a ship captain attempts to buy her services for the evening. Rath, however, stands in the way of this and defends Lola’s honor. Everyone else in the cabaret is a bit entranced by the professor, and makes him something of a hero. Kiepert, the show magician (Kurt Gerron) takes Rath and puts him in the reserved box, and Lola sings “Falling in Love Again” to him.

As it turns out, Rath spends the night with Lola, and is late for class the next day. He gets dressed down by his boss and becomes a brief laughing stock for his students before he essentially walks out of the job, goes back to Lola, and proposes. She accepts, and the two are married. He immediately puts his foot down on the sale of her postcards (and the sale of everything else) while he has money. But the money runs out, and so does his will to protect Lola from the seamier sides of things. Eventually, he is forced to join the show as a clown, a huge step down from his former position of importance and respect. Worse yet, the troupe is returning to his home town and Der Blaue Engel. Worse still, Lola has grown tired of him, and is now taking up with a new man.

Der Blaue Engel is a tragedy in the classic sense—we have a man of power and position who falls to extreme depths by the end of the film, becoming essentially a degraded version of himself and a parody of his former stature because of a fatal flaw. In this case, it’s a combination of his pride and his blind love for Lola, who eventually becomes disgusted with the man that she married.

There are a lot of noteworthy moments in the film. The first time that Rath is backstage, for instance, he continually runs into the current clown, a man who never speaks and looks completely emotionless and numb. By the end of the film, this self-important professor is in the same position, playing the same role, giving us a nice foreshadowing for what is to come. Additionally, at the reception of the wedding, the magician performs a trick where he causes eggs to appear out of thin air. Lola begins clucking and the deliriously happy Rath begins crowing like a rooster. Toward the end of the film, on stage, the trick is repeated, and Rath is forced to repeat his rooster crow in front of his former colleagues and townspeople, a moment of almost complete degradation and humiliation.

Given that this film hits Shakespearean depths of tragedy by the end, I have to wonder what the hell Herr Kurtz was thinking when he put this in front of a bunch of 14-year-old freshmen every year. I mean, Das Boot isn’t any less depressing, but at least there’s some explosions.

Regardless, this is a great film and regarded as such for a reason. It’s a tremendous performance from Jannings, who is the real star. It’s also a literal star-making performance for Dietrich, who was an unknown before this film.

It’s also an interesting piece of film history for a couple of reasons. The film was simultaneously shot in both English and German (I watched the German—Herr Kurtz would want it that way). It’s also a bridge from the early silent German expressionist dramas into the world of talkies. There’s a bit of expressionist influence here, seen mostly in the street exteriors outside the nightclub. In biological terms, this film is a transitional fossil to a more modern form.

Why to watch Der Blaue Engel: One of the great dramas of the early days of film.
Why not to watch: It’s really depressing.


  1. Josef Von Sternberg was no slouch, in any language. And his work with Jannings was one of them love hate relationships. I suggest the silent film pairing of the two "The Last Command". I am VERY surprised it is not in "The Book", I find it a better film than "The Docks of New York".

  2. Well, I've only seen two of his films. This one I really like. The other I've seen is Shanghai Express, and that one I could have lived with out.

  3. The professor's spiral out of control is one of the best in film. And yeah, it's terribly depressing, but oh so good.

  4. Yeah, that's really the whole film. He goes so low so fast and so completely...

  5. I am not sure explosions would have worked well for Der blaue Engel...

    1. I dunno. It would have certainly livened up the film if the professor had whipped out a grenade launcher at the end.