In late 1929 the young Austrian-American director Josef von Sternberg travelled from Hollywood to Berlin, contracted by Ufa to make a movie with Emil Jannings about Rasputin. According to von Sternberg's 1967 memoir, he could not develop a strong interest in that subject. Instead he followed Jannings's suggestion to read Heinrich Mann's 1905 novel Professor Unrath, and after drastically altering the storyline and meaning, he created the spectacle of bourgeois male humiliation that is The Blue Angel.
Rightly or wrongly, film scholars and historians typically include The Blue Angel in the canon of Weimar modernism. After the Second World War, discussions of Weimar cultural artifacts tended to resort to a set of teleological clichés about decadence and proto-Nazism. Siegfried Kracauer announced in his influential From Caligari To Hitler that Angel was a "statement on the psychological situation of the time" that "penetrated depths of the collective soul"; a story of "loosened instincts," the protagonist of which undergoes a "process of retrogression" that "proves anew the problem of German immaturity"; and a film that was popular among the late-Weimar "masses" in part due to its "outright sadism" and foreshadowings of totalitarianism.1
Scholars of Weimar culture have been moving away from the exclusive focus on the canon, but they still have to consider how such famous works were related to everyday cultures.2 This new release in Eureka's Masters of Cinema series will help film scholars and historians to think about both the film's relationship to interwar Germany and its place in cinema history. The release offers three versions of the film itself: two DVDs contain the restored German and English versions, respectively, and a high-definition Blu-ray version caters to those who do not mind seeing the film's cinematography bastardized. An interesting range of viewpoints appears in the extras; the accompanying booklet includes detailed production notes and the aforementioned excerpt from von Sternberg's memoirs, and the discs contain Marlene Dietrich's original [End Page 801] screen test, excerpts from her interviews and performances, a commentary by critic Tony Raynes, and an insightful video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher.
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The new release leaves no doubt that The Blue Angel was a technically pioneering work in the transition from silent film to talkies. As Raynes points out in his commentary, von Sternberg and his technicians put much thought into the expressive use of sound, music, and light. Here the director benefited from German cinematographers and set designers who had learned their trades in the earlier years of expressionist filmmaking. Indeed, some sets in Angel recall the angular architecture and lighting contrasts of Caligari.
The most notorious element of the film, though, is the acting by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. In his memoir, von Sternberg presents himself as the film's absolute auteur. Somewhat contradictorily, he relates that Jannings fought him every step of the way. A specialist in masochistic roles, Jannings seems to have empathized more with Professor Rath than did von Sternberg, who apparently made the film to get revenge on the bad teachers of his childhood. Thus there is a fascinating tension in the film between an actor who plays the character as tragic and a director who encourages audience Schadenfreude at the ruination of an uptight martinet. Pace Krakauer, given Jannings's success in undermining von Sternberg's sadistic intent, it seems unlikely that audiences made the film a hit in Germany and elsewhere solely because they enjoyed Rath's humiliation.
As for Marlene Dietrich's star-making performance as Lola Lola, von Sternberg writes:
I am credited with her discovery. This was not so. I am not an archaeologist who finds some buried bones with a pelvis that indicates a female. I am a teacher who took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised...