Erich Pommer, Marlene Dietrich & Weimar Cinema

Erich Pommer, Marlene Dietrich & Weimar Cinema

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release Date: April 1st 1930 (Germany)
Certificate: U
Running Time: 106 minutes

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Producer: Erich Pommer
Cast: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, Reinhold Bernt, Eduard Von Winterstein, Hans Roth, Rolf Muller, Rolant Varno, Karl Balhaus, Robert Klein-Lork, Karl Huszar-Puffy, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Gerhard Bienert, Ilse Furstenberg

In the years of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), Germany would see a flourishing of creativity that crossed all borders from art and literature, into music and film. It is this creative flourishing that we refer to, as the ‘Golden Years’. Eberhard Kolb writes about it in the opening of the chapter The Artistic Avant-Garde and Mass Culture in the ‘Golden Twenties’:

When the Weimar years are referred to nostalgically as the ‘golden twenties’, those who do so are not thinking of the long-drawn-out political and economic distress but of the eruption of a new vitality, the liberation of creative forces in a short decade of unbounded intellectual and artistic freedom.

This intellectual and artistic freedom is exactly what gave birth to something like The Blue Angel (1930). 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).

This film demonstrates the typical social and sexual anxieties the 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. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, it was also the film that catapulted its star Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. It 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. It is hard to say if this makes it typical or untypical as Weimar film, but it would not necessarily see it as wrong to view it both ways. It 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:

The film’s first images thus are gothic rooftops like those seen in both Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922); the next shot of a lower-class street milieu, made up entirely of women, evokes the tenements of The Last Laugh (1924). The street itself is filmed a bit later in a way that evokes other street films, especially Bruno Rahn’s Tragedy of the Prostitute (Dirnentragodie, 1927). Heading for the Blue Angel the first time, Professor Rath makes his way down a street that is portrayed ominously as a realm of shadows, an eroticized lower-class milieu in which a prostitute briefly appears.

McCormick also points out more notable features from these expressionist films which also appear in The Blue Angel including the final scenes which reflect The Last Laugh and the use of the flashlight:

The flashlight of a nightwatchman is used in both films to seek out a ruined man in the depths of darkness: in The Last Laugh, it is the demoted doorman collapsed on a chair in the men’s room of the hotel; in The Blue Angel, it is the deceased Rath, clutching his desk in the classroom he once dominated. This use of the flashlight’s beam is arguably a cinematically “self-reflexive” moment of foreground looking, reminiscent of Rotwang’s beam in Metropolis (1927), which pursues and traps Maria in the dark caverns below the city. At the same time it bears a relation to the “cold”, “surgical” gaze so often mentioned in accounts of Weimar society and New Objectivity by recent scholars.

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 is 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 film 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 Sternberg 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 (page 67):

She spoke little English – the contract specified that the film be shot in two versions, German and English – and had no singing voice at all. The awkward shape of her nose made photography difficult, and her stage presence was bovine and charmless. Yet Sternberg, enchanted by her reserved eroticism, fell in love immediately with the woman he saw she would become.

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 in The Blue Angel (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 Richard McCormick in The Cabaret of Humiliation, Gender, Spectacle and Spectatorship in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel notices:

Here the figure of the “monster” is a vamp – not a machine as in Metropolis, but nonetheless “phallic”. Such psycho-sexual connotations are combined with sociological ones as well: the film’s vamp, Lola Lola, portrayed by Marlene Dietrich in the role that would make her an international star, is also a working woman, and her marriage to Rath can be seen in reference to Weimar’s “crisis of marriage”. Modern fears about marriage and working women were by no means exclusive to Germany, but in this film they manifest themselves in a very “German” scenario that is an adaptation (albeit a very unfaithful one) of a left-wing German novel from the turn of the century, Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat (1905).

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 WWII in which you see such a spectacle of humiliation:

The masochistic staging of humiliation may proceed in the service of being “contained”, yet it is both provocative and telling. Clearly, such display of male weakness would soon vanish from the German cinema: the Nazis hated The Blue Angel – and any such wallowing in humiliation. The anxieties in the film are not exclusively psychic, of course; they are part of larger fears triggered by modernity and its destabilisation of traditional gender roles (and other identities).

If the Nazis hated it, then this reason alone makes The Blue Angel a great example as a product of the Weimar era. It does not just represent 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.

Leave Your Reply

Required fields are marked *. Your details will never be shared.