The Blue Angel launched one of the great movie partnerships: director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich.
They were to make seven movies together of increasingly baroque extravagance, or what Sternberg described as “relentless excursions into style”. After their partnership broke up in 1936, neither of them ever did anything quite so exceptional again.
When they met, Dietrich was 29 and had already appeared in nearly 20 movies to no great acclaim. Sternberg, though, saw something in this “modest little German hausfrau” and “instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections, and led her to crystallise a pictorial aphrodisiac,” creating one of the cinema’s most enduring erotic icons.
Born in Vienna, as Josef Stern (the ‘von’ and the ‘berg’ came later), Sternberg directed all his earliest films in the USA; The Blue Angel, shot in simultaneous German and English-language versions, was his first European movie - and one of the first German sound films.
The plot is adapted from a novel, Professor Unrath, by Heinrich Mann. Emil Jannings (Faust, The Last Laugh), then at the height of his fame, plays a pompous provincial schoolteacher who becomes hopelessly ensnared by the charms of a singer, Lola Lola (guess who), in a sleazy local nightclub.
As ever, Sternberg observes his characters with cold, ironic intensity. Scenes of self-satisfied dignity brought humiliatingly low were a Jannings speciality, and Blue Angel offers them in spades.
Under the mocking gaze of Dietrich and her fellow artistes, the lovelorn Professor Rath is induced to perform in the club, got up in a baggy clown costume and crowing like a cockerel.
By today’s standards, Jannings’ acting seems heavyand over-emphatic, though there’s a pathos in the completeness of his downfall. But Dietrich is nothing short of superb in basque, black stockings and top hat, perched on a barstool and singing ‘Falling In Love Again’ in those famously husky tones.
Unmistakably, a star is born. Eureka’s generously lavish package includes both versions of the movie, English and German.
The German works better: at this stage in her career, Dietrich’s command of English was limited and her insistence (in the English version), that Rath speak English to her because it’s “my language” feels laughably unconvincing.
But in either version, Sternberg’s expressionist shadows and Dietrich’s sensual screen presence are as compelling as ever.