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Berlin Year Zero: The Making of The Blue Angel
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Berlin Year Zero:
The Making of The Blue Angel

Wars will wash over us . . . bombs will fall . . . all civilization will crumble . . . but not yet, please . . . wait, wait . . . what's the hurry? Let us be happy . . . give us our moment.

Ninotchka, screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, from a story by Melchior Lengyel

Occasionally, a film becomes emblematic of its historical moment. Josef von Sternberg's 1929 Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel was in production at the exact instant Wall Street crashed, but in Berlin the disaster went unremarked by a bewitched director interested only in his new star and lover, a hitherto obscure actress named Marlene Dietrich. He left us with a snapshot of Europe at the instant when Germany's Weimar Republic, culturally the richest of the century, finally expired. Within a few months, power would pass to the National Socialist Party, the leader of which, Adolf Hitler, numbered The Blue Angel among his favorite films.

References to The Blue Angel appear in every film history. Almost invariably we are told that, in 1929, Emil Jannings, Germany's most famous actor, persuaded Universum Film Ag (UFA), Europe's largest film studio, to invite the Vienna-born von Sternberg, with whom he had worked during a spell in Hollywood, to come to Berlin and direct his first talking film. The truth is more complex, and more strange. [End Page 164]

To make a sound film in Berlin in 1929 was anything but simple. Germans pioneered sound recording as they did photography, and companies like Tobis-Klangfilm controlled major patents. So, however, did the U.S. company General Electric, which forbade the use of its technology in German theaters. Not until June 1929 did a U.S. sound-on-film talkie, The Singing Fool, play in Berlin, and then only after earlier releases were cancelled in legal wrangles. Up to the last minute, it hadn't been certain the film would open, and critics had to fight for tickets at the first screenings with members of the public. In September 1929, when UFA unveiled the "Tonkreuz" (Sound Cross) complex at its Neubablesberg studios, with four giant sound stages radiating from a central hub, nobody was sure what films would be made there, and whether they would be suitable for export to countries using General Electric equipment. With this doubt went a general hostility toward Hollywood productions, particularly if they featured German artists who had been lured there by high American salaries. For an actor like Emil Jannings to return and make a talking film in Germany was an act freighted with social, political, cultural, and financial significance.

Early in 1929, UFA, gambling that writing talent would be needed more than ever in sound films, hired Germany's most commercially successful screenwriter, Robert Liebmann. As its dramaturg, a resident scenarist and consultant, he received 2,500 Reichmarks (about US$500) a week, with a further 10,000 RM (US$2000) for each of five original screenplays. In May, popular playwright Carl Zuckmayer also came on salary, with an agreement to provide three screenplays. Meanwhile, UFA's former production manager, Erich Pommer, fired after Fritz Lang's science fiction epic Metropolis (DE, 1926) went disastrously over budget, bargained his way back into the company by negotiating the return of Emil Jannings to Germany. UFA secured Jannings's services from November 1929 to February 1930 for $60,000.

In a carefully timed arrival, the actor returned to Berlin on May 15, the day before it was announced that he had won a Best Actor Academy Award for Victor Fleming's The Way of All Flesh (US, 1926) and The Last Command (US, 1927), directed by von Sternberg. At the same time, UFA revealed he would make his first sound film at the end of the year, from an original screenplay by Zuckmayer. On May 31, Jannings's next-to-last Hollywood film, the disappointing Street of Sin, based on a story by von Sternberg, opened at one of Berlin's most prestigious cinemas, the Palast am Zoo. Three weeks later, on June 21, writer Karl Vollmoeller also returned to Berlin from Hollywood, where he lived part of...