I was moved to watch The Blue Angel (1930) last week, after reading one of Stanley Kauffmann's reviews - something I do almost daily, it seems, ever since his death last October.(1) The film has never been on my list of favorites. Josef von Sternberg, who adopted the "von" to give himself prestige that impressed the hicks in Hollywood sufficiently to land him a career, is responsible for catapulting Marlene Dietrich to a stardom she would've been better off without. Sternberg is also responsible for the irritating Danish director Lars von Trier adopting the "von" in his honor.
Having read Lotte Eisner's wonderful books on the subject, German film was leading the way in Europe before the Nazis took over, with producer Erich Pommer, Ufa, Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst making up for the loss of F.W. Murnau to Hollywood. Having written before about Pabst's spectral silent film, Pandora's Box, which was adapted from two plays by Wedekind, The Blue Angel comes closer to capturing something of the Berlin cabaret life that Christopher Isherwood wrote about in Berlin Stories and I Am a Camera. Carefully restored from elements that owe their existence to luck, accident, and the erstwhile efforts of Henri Langlois, to whom a cinephile Nazi entrusted the original negative, even as Hitler's agents were busy destroying all evidence of the film and of anyone who appeared in it, it's an example of what Goebbels called "decadent" art, because it showed us a Germany that bore no resemblance to the Nazi fantasies of a master race. So it was condemned, along with other priceless works of art and literature, to the bonfire. Freud, who was safe in England, remarked on the wholesale destruction of German culture with an oddly forboding joke: "This is progress. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned the artists, too."(2)
The role of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, in the preservation of The Blue Angel is widely acknowledged. In the film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Serge Losique, of the World Film Festival Montreal, tells the story of how, during the German Occupation of France, Langlois had to resort to elaborate efforts to rescue certain of the films in his possession from confiscation and destruction by the Nazis. In particular, Hitler was bent of destroying all the negatives of The Blue Angel. Losique explains:
"The Blue Angel was, as you know, very rare, and Langlois saved the negative. . . . An SS officer who loved the film and loved Marlene Dietrich, he phoned Langlois to propose a trade: in exchange for a documentary on the Maginot Line, Langlois would get the Dietrich negative, which was smuggled to safety in Switzerland. Henri found a documentary of no military pertinence and gave that to the Germans. And that's how he saved The Blue Angel negative."
In the aforementioned review, Stanley Kauffmann discussed a documentary called Prisoner of Paradise, made by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender, which examined the fate of Kurt Gerron:
"Those who have seen Sternberg's The Blue Angel have seen Gerron. He plays Kiepert, the manager of the cabaret troupe that features Marlene Dietrich - a heavy man, with jowls and a gruff yet humorous voice - with accessible compassion. Kiepert is also the magician of the troupe, and at the wedding party of Dietrich and Emil Jannings he pulls eggs from the groom's nose. In the climactic cabaret scene, he breaks eggs on Jannings's clown-wigged head. . . . Gerron and some of the rest of The Blue Angel cast were prominent in the Berlin entertainment world of 1930. (Hans Albers, the strongman who tempts Dietrich, was a popular star who not only survived the war but later even had his face on a German postage stamp.) The fate under Hitler for some of the others was as black as Gerron's . . . When we pick up any German or Austrian artwork that was made in the decade before Hitler's rule, we almost always pick up at least one tragedy with it. The Blue Angel has more than one, but Gerron's strikes hardest."
Marlene Dietrich made good her escape to Hollywood, as did her idolater Sternberg, whose subsequent films with her helped to create an image that made "smut," as Vernon Young once put it, "divine." She also transformed herself from the fleshy, winningly genuine young woman in The Blue Angel into an emaciated Hollywod goddess; and Sternberg was changed from a risk-taking artist into an obedient factory employee. Dietrich and he parted company after the string of films they made together - six more in just five years - degenerated into ludicrous, fetishistic trash.
For me the most fascinating aspect of this film, from the perspective of eight-four years later, are the shots of the crowd at the nightclub The Blue Angel, the faces of the audience, laughing and heckling at the extraordinary goings-on on stage. Sternberg caught a moment in history in those faces, and as a representation of the lower strata of German society that would've frequented a dive such as The Blue Angel, it's no wonder Hitler wanted the existence of the film effaced, since the Germans Sternberg shows us look far too human.
Looking at Dietrich, in her bloomers and gartered stockings, it's amazing what our grandfathers once found titillating. After all the hoopla over Dietrich and Sternberg and, by now, the memory of the hoopla, The Blue Angel simply isn't all that satisfying as a film. Professor Rath's downfall, as acted by Emil Jannings, looks like a slow-motion train wreck. The Heinrich Mann novel on which the script was based, like others of his novels that were eventually made into films, demonstrates why his brother Thomas won all the awards.(3)
(1) "The Berliner," The New Republic, December 22, 2003.
(2) Freud was dead by the time the death camps were discovered.
(3) The Hungarian director Istvan Szabo succeeded in making one of Heinrich's novels into the intriguing film Mephisto.