Original release: April 1st 1930
Running time: 106 minutes
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Producer: Erich Pommer
Cast: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich
I remember when I first fell in love with German cinema. It was in October 1999 when I saw Run Lola Run. Sitting there in the darkened auditorium and experiencing this hyper state of story-telling I couldn’t help but wonder why up until then I’d never seen a German film before.
A year later I would be living in Berlin and soaking up soaking up both contemporary and classic offerings but it wasn’t until I visited its famed Studio Babelsberg in 2001 and saw some of the vintage costumes on display and began to read up on it that I really came to comprehend and appreciate the importance of Germany’s history of cinema.
Its birth can be traced back to November 1st 1895, not with an exhibition of the Lumière brothers’ Cinematographe, but with Max and Emil Skladanowsky’s own film projector. They would later realise the Lumière brothers’ Cinematographe was much better than theirs and while these moving pictures were at first seen as a pastime for the bourgeois, it wasn’t long before the short films were being seen by the working and lower-middle class as well.
In the years that followed, the films became longer and those who appeared in them became the first stars of silent cinema. The formation of Universum Film AG (UFA) during the years of World War I went hand in hand with the propaganda and Vaterland films that were being produced, but from 1918 until the start of World War II something wonderful happened – the Weimar Republic.
Germany would see a flourishing of creativity that crossed all borders from art and literature, into music and film. It’s this creative flourishing that we refer to, as the ‘Golden Years’. Eberhard Kolb writes about it in the opening of the chapter The Weimar Republic
This intellectual and artistic freedom is exactly what gave birth to a film like The Blue Angel. First with the novel by Heinrich Mann (which the film is based on) and then through Josef von Sternberg who took inspiration from Frank Wedekind’s 1895 play Earth Spirit with a character called “Lulu”, and of course Pandora’s Box (1905), to create a character like Lola Lola (originally called Rosa Frohlich in Mann’s novel).
The Blue Angel demonstrates the typical social and sexual anxieties Germans were facing at this time. Is also combines cinematic aesthetics with brand new technology to produce what would be referred to as one of Germany’s first major sound films. It was also the film that catapulted its star Marlene Dietrich to international stardom and is noted for incorporating elements of previous expressionist films from the Weimar era perfectly into its setting without ever actually becoming an expressionist film itself. As a result, it is hard to say if this makes it typical or untypical as Weimar film, but it would not necessarily wrong to see it to view it both ways. Its visual style helps to balance the film effortlessly against the backdrop of the sleazy cabaret life that Lola Lola leads the professor into.
The expressionist elements are visible from the opening scene where the rooftops, houses and streets recreate those expressionist qualities already seen in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). This is picked up by Richard McCormick in The Cabaret of Humiliation, Gender, Spectacle and Spectatorship in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel:
McCormick also points out more notable features from these expressionist films that also appear in The Blue Angel including the final scenes which recalls The Last Laugh with the use of the flashlight:
The Blue Angel is a paradigmatic product of Weimar culture, but there are also a couple of ways in which the film is less typical of Weimar in this time. Unlike the many films that came out Weimar before, The Blue Angel was a “talkie”; its characters spoke and sang and they could be heard talking in the background, applauding in the audience, climbing up the stairs and most of all; closing the doors as they entered or left a room.
This however is not the only thing that sets it apart from other films in the Weimar years. It’s also considered to be one of the last blooming moments in Weimar history before it was all destroyed by fascism. Also, unlike most films which came before, this one was simultaneously shot in English and German, allowing for it to easily be exported to countries like America where Dietrich would later be welcomed as an international star and the trademark song “Falling in Love Again” would become immortal, reaching cinema fans around the world for generations to come.
It is also the first time we are introduced to a femme fatale. It is hard to separate the character of Lola Lola, and Dietrich the actress; both are strong, intelligent, calculating, powerful and enigmatic. The appearing similarities were not unnoticed by Sternberg when he cast her in the role. In John Baxter’s chapter on The Blue Angel in The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, he mentions that another actress had previously been cast in the role (Kathe Haack), but as soon as Sterberg set eyes on Dietrich, he knew no one else could play her and urged Erich Pommer to talk to Kathe and pay her off as a contract had already been signed. There were some problems however with Dietrich as Lola:
Did she become Marlene or did she become Lola Lola? Displaying traits of femininity one minute only to reappear the next completely androgynous, her ability to command an audience and bewitch the men around her, not through any talent but by utilising her sexuality; was it Lola or Marlene? Either way, similar traits had already been seen in women in films such as Metropolis and Diary of a Lost Girl but in The Blue Angel, you get them all rolled into one.
Previously the villain in earlier films had been a monster or robot or deranged mad person, but here (if you view Lola as a villainess or femme fatale), she does not fall into any of these categories, she is quite simply an ordinary woman who is a product of the social and sexual anxieties that defined this era. She is the first of the femme fatales that we would continue to see on the screen for many years to come, the first vamp. As McCormick notices:
One final example of what might separate this film from other films in the Weimar era, such as Metropolis, is the fact that it was hated by the Nazis. Whereas they loved Metropolis with its futuristic vision of a city towering high above into the sky with millions of workers beneath it, The Blue Angel stood for a lot of the things which they hated and tried so hard to force out of society. Was it because of the all singing, all dancing cabaret performers in their androgynous outfits and carefree lifestyle?
Richard W. McCormick hints to another reason why they might have hated the film. They might not have enjoyed watching it because of the spectacle of humiliation, defeat and powerlessness of one man by a woman. McCormick tells us exactly why this is one of the last films before World War II in which you see such a spectacle of humiliation:
If the Nazis hated it, then this reason alone makes The Blue Angel a great example of a product of the Weimar era. It represents not only what was what was going on at the time in terms of cinema and art, but also perfectly illustrates the social anxieties and sexual modernity of the times. It was a time when people were changing and the way we viewed things were changing.
For as many reasons why The Blue Angel is a typical product of the Weimar era, there are just as many reasons which can be employed to show it as untypical. Viewed all together, they form a very clear set of examples as to why this film has endured as long as it has and why it will continue to do so as a Weimar film.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .