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Marlene Dietrich




Universum Film A.G., Paramount, 1930.  Directed by Josef von Sternberg.  Camera:  Günther Rittau.  With Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings.

There is a rumble of premonition in the fact that the first talking film to make itself heard in this volume and therefore to lead to the sound parade is Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, made in Germany in 1929.  For above and beyond this picture's being a mordant work of cinema art and a surprisingly early example of effective wedding of picture and sound, it marks the first all-out screen appearance of a kind of woman and a quality of sex that have become progressively more insistent in the culture of talking films.

The woman that Marlene Dietrich exudes in this dark, degenerate tale of the destruction of a German schoolmaster by a faithless cabaret girl is so far advanced beyond the limits of the sleek, husband-stealing vamps, the poignant, self-sacrificing mistresses and the  shimmying bowlfuls of "it" that so inadequately stated the attraction of women for men in silent films, it's no wonder she caused a world sensation, launched Miss Dietrich on a fabulous career and became, as it were, the grandmother of a whole slew of notable screen sluts.

Some critics say The Blue Angel is important primarily because it so presciently shows the immaturity and sadism of the German middle class.  It does this, beyond any question.  In its singular contemplation of the sudden disintegration of a pillar of bourgeois society under the quick, corrosive influence of a strong application of gutter sex, it starkly reveals the imperfection and fraudulence of the facade of middle-class decency and discipline that is ponderous hero represents.  It sourly suggests the soggy culture out of which Nazism oozed.  And in the sadistic frenzy of the schoolboys to torment and destroy their hated teacher after they have witnessed his weakness for the cabaret girl, we may spot the incipient viciousness of later Hitler Youth.

But I find The Blue Angel most engrossing because of the opening it makes upon the whole darksome, subterranean area of psychoneurotic sex.  Where the custom in silent pictures was simply to treat the primal urge as a powerful but usually unholy and sinful appetite that overwhelms men and women by its sheer physical rush and urgency, the revelation in this picture is a sickly image of sex as a passion mixed up with deep obsessions to dominate and get revenge.  And where the evil of it in the silents was mainly its immorality, the evil of it in The Blue Angel is its corruption into a social disease that infects the aggressions of people and causes them to act in debased and vicious ways.

The great Professor Rath, its stern protagonist, is no more than a pretty brute whose badgering and bullying of his teenage pupils is apparently his only means of releasing his inhibitions and rewarding his stuffy bachelorhood.  Thus it would seem a mere extension of his desire to rule the boys that causes him to trail some of them to The Blue Angel, a low-class cabaret, when he discovers they are going there to ogle a female entertainer whose photograph he has snatched from one of them.  And likewise it would seem but a fervor to show  his boastful authority that first sends him to the dressing room of Lola, the sultry singing star.

But, of course, it is the pull of voyeurism and a resentment of her attractiveness that hauls him into her presence, and it is desire to vaunt his masculine command, as much as it is lust for fornication, that makes him fall for her lures to go to bed.  Likewise, it is h is ignominy, rather than any vestige of physical desire, that keeps him attached to the woman after she  has deceived and degraded him.

Similarly, the basic urge in Lola, this insolent cabaret girl with the long legs, the bare thighs, the garters, the provocatively ornamented crotch, the smoldering eyes, the moistening armpits and the husky voice that sings Falling in Love Again, is not to enjoy coition.  It is to vanquish and debase this stupid man who has dared to intrude himself upon her with his air of superiority.  It is the urge to take vengeance upon him, which is the usual latent urge of prostitutes and, in this particular case, to show contempt for the smug middle class he represents.

These strange and ugly intimations which creep out like worms in the film were a new kind of Freudian dissection of human behavior when they were first shown on the screen.  They still stand as startling revelation in the overworked sex-drama genre.

The Blue Angel was made by Sternberg at the personal and urgent request of Emil Jannings, the distinguished German actor, whom he had directed in Hollywood in The Last Command (1928).  Sternberg was a young American director who, in four years and nine silent films, had advanced himself from the obscurity of a cutter to the gaudy distinction of being the most aggressive enfant terrible (outside of Erich von Stroheim) in American films.  Although there had been some friction between him and Jannings while they were making The Last Command, the famous actor apparently trusted the director enough to seek his help when he went back to Berlin and got ready to make his first plunge into the uncertain realm of the talking film.

For this initial venture, which was to be done in German, of course (with, as it turned out in production, an English version shot simultaneously), Jannings chose a novel, Professor Unrat, by Heinrich Mann.  It was a story of an eminent school teacher who lost his position and caste when he married a demimonde singer and thereafter disgraced himself in gambling and cheap politics.  It was a bitter arraignment of society at the time it was published, 1905.

Evidently Jannings chose it because it followed the general line of the kind of stories in which he had been popular since his brilliant appearance in F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924).  These were stories of fallen idols—men of substance and authority who, for one reason or another (usually women), were reduced to ruin and shame.  In The Last Laugh, he was a hotel doorman who got drunk and lost his job.  In E. A. Dupont's superb Variety (1925), he was a stellar trapeze performer who succumbed to jealousy.  And he likewise was several sorts of failures in the silent films he did in Hollywood—The Way of All Flesh (1927), The Patriot (1928), Sins of the Fathers (1929) and The Last Command.

With Mann's complete endorsement and the nominal collaborative help of three German writers, who Sternberg maintains in his amusing autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, had virtually no hand in it, the protean director prepared a screenplay which departed considerably from Mann's original story.  His changes were mainly in the cutting of the latter part, updating it and reshaping the role of the girl.

Of major importance, as a consequence, was the choice of an actress to play this role, a subtly corrosive creature who is the deus ex machina.  Sternberg describes with zest and humor the circumstances under which he found an undistinguished actress who was then in a play in Berlin and perceived her exquisite possibilities, despite their complete obscurity to Jannings and everyone else.  This may be.  Erich Pommer, the producer of The Blue Angel, once told me that Sternberg tried at first to get a prominent German actress, Greta Massine, to play the crucial role.  When he couldn't get her, he fretfully settled for this odd and unpromising girl, whose name was Marlene Dietrich and who had sung in cabarets.  There is no point in quibbling about it.  The important thing is that Sternberg did pick Miss Dietrich to play Lola and got a famous performance from her.  It is not to take one whit from his credit or from Jannings' to say that it is the aura exuded by Miss Dietrich that gives this film its unique cachet.

Jannings is fine, beyond question, and his powerful projection of Rath provides the dramatic provocation for the subtle reactions of the girl.  His deft establishment of the teacher in the opening scenes—with his loftiness toward his landlady when she brings his breakfast to his rooms, his arrogance toward his pupils, the way he domineers them (especially the more timid and toadying), the way he wipes his glasses, blows his nose, struts his command of English by speaking Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy—provides an immediate and repugnant indication of a bloated egotist.

And it is he who propels the drama forward with the obtuseness of a charging bull, as he lunges for the raw temptations that Lola so deliberately waves, rushes for her sly seductions, puts himself in the way of being speared.  His brutish reaction to the business of her tossing her panties in his face the time he first goes to berate her in her smoky dressing room is like the first arrogant, contemptuous tangle of a bull with a fluttering cape.  He snorts at the miserable insult, but he returns the next night for more.  (Incidentally, Sternberg's staging of this scene in the dressing room is so cumulative of detail, so suggestive of closeness and heat, one practically experiences with the teacher the tousled garment's odor and warmth.)

Going on, Jannings' truculent performance of Rath's bullheaded conceit when he is got drunk and falsely adulated by the manager of the cabaret is vividly illustrative of his bovine plunging toward doom.  So is his dudgeon toward the school's headmaster when he is censured for the scandalous thing he has done and pugnaciously accepts his dismissal, or his fatuous responses to the flattery of Lola's associates when they get him to crow like a cock at the wedding night.  In
every respect, Jannings gives us an excruciating understanding of vanity, lust and brute aggression that drives this man to his ruin.  And he finally presents a haunting picture of the last stage of Rath's decay in a fit of maniacal cock-crowing on the cabaret's smoky stage before an audience of his former pupils who have come to hoot at him.

But the air of evil and corruption that wafts so heavily through this film comes from the sultriness of Lola, from the intensity with which she is played.  How much of this is Sternberg, his sense of the mechanics of a slut and his skillfulness in surrounding such a creature with a noxiously steamy atmosphere, and how much of it is Miss Dietrich is hard to analyze.  Sternberg suggests she was the puppet, that he manipulated the strings.

Certainly he was the master who had her do such impertinently obscene things as the business of tossing the panties, grossly spitting into her mascara box, dropping cigarettes under her dressing table and making Rath get down and pick them up so that he will be within inches of her bare legs and her contiguous erogenous zone.  It was Sternberg who gave her the cruel line, "You've come back; they always do," when the ponderously proud schoolmaster returns to her dressing room.  And it was he who directed Lola's sudden and viciously autocratic switch from seductress to commanding virago on their fatal wedding night.

But it is Miss Dietrich's own magnetism, her weird way of sinking her eyes behind an enigmatic curtain, her ability to blend just the right tones of come-hither and go-to-hell in that Falling in Love Again song that put individuality into the character the director shaped for her.

It is notable that Sternberg does not give us any scenes of Rath and Lola making love, none of the sort of erotic acrobatics that have shown up in later sex-charged films.  This is tremendously important, for it is all too suggestively implied in the few shots he shows of the teacher fumbling clumsily and grossly with the slut that any sex act between them would be disgustingly callow and crude, totally without pleasure for either of them.  This leads us back to the premise that it is sex in its more neurotic form that is the essence of this picture.   It is the lust-bloated arrogance of a man who thinks he can impose his domination and his whole stuffy, sterile way of life simply by having a woman go to bed with him.

The clue to this fatuous self-deception is the early attitude of Rath that he can have relations with Lola in the conventions of the hide-bound middle class.  When he wakes up in the morning after his first night with her in her room, he has the indolent air of a burgher after a stodgy rut with his frau.  Likewise, he is deluded when the manager of the Blue Angel boasts that his own special skill as a magician puts him in the professorial class.  Rath actually thinks his stuffy status as a "herr professor" is looked up to in this place.  And he falls for the mocking deception of Lola wearing a proper bridal gown for their obscenely vulgar wedding.  He still thinks he has conquered her.

Thus the crux of the drama is the explosion of this ridiculous conceit with the denouement of Lola's cruel perversion of the purpose of sex.  Suddenly and shockingly she shows Rath on their wedding night that her seeming interest in him was but means to delude and dominate.  By making him pick up the bundle of lewd photographs of her that he has spilled on the floor in indignation, she drives home the devastating point that her sex is but an article in commerce and she uses it as
she will.  From his smug and smiling contentment, shown in the way he smokes a fat cigar, he is suddenly dumped into a strange state of shock and bewilderment.  The flimsy props of his illusions are knocked out from under him, and he finds himself stricken and helpless in an alien and hostile milieu.

From here on, the morbid demonstration is the sucking of this brutally deflated man into the maw of the vulgar environment that Lola and the Blue Angel exploit—the environment of common, sex-starved people gorging sausages, swilling beer and ogling the fat, concupiscent women who rouse their animal appetites.  It is an environment from which the broken bourgeois ironically crawls at the end to die at his desk in the schoolroom from which he detached himself so arrogantly.

This being an early talking picture, it is interesting to see how economical Sternberg is with talk.  He packs some essential information and personality into the dialogue, which is as it should be, and he develops a great deal of stimulation with Lola's naturally included song.  But most of his best communication of character and atmosphere come in the pictorial presentation that is done with silent techniques.  So able is Sternberg with details, so graphically does he describe the setting of The Blue Angel, its personnel and its clientele, that one can almost sense the body odors, the stink of stale beer and cheap perfume.  It is as though he has commanded in this picture not only the dimension of sound but that of smell.  This is one of the things about The Blue Angel that makes it an extraordinary film.

Significant and premonitory is the fact that Lola, for all her perversity, is still a provocative creature when we last see her in the company of a handsome new actor.  She is unloving and self-serving, but she has that kind of arrogant allure that makes her the secret envy of women and a vicarious challenge to men.

It was this quality that Sternberg tried to carry on in the series of films that he made with a glamorized Miss Dietrich in Hollywood during the next several years.  The first of the lot, Morocco, which has Gary Cooper as co-star, was released in America in 1930, ahead of The Blue Angel in fact.  It is the best of the Hollywood series, but neither Sternberg nor Miss Dietrich ever again reached, together or separately, the level of this ground-breaking classic German film.

The Great Films by Bosley Crowther
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1967