It’s strange that the work of Josef von Sternberg has not been better represented in the realm of Blu-ray production. Aside from 1930’s The Blue Angel, available now on a new Kino Classics 2-Disc Ultimate Edition, not a single Sternberg film exists on the format. For such a stylish director, one who was expressly concerned with the ornate visual texture of his films, the enhanced images that go along with the standard digital restorations of Blu-ray titles would seemingly be ideal. That said, with at least The Blue Angel, it does become clear that this format and this filmmaker are indeed made for each other.
While not as deliberately composed to accentuate frames bursting to their edges with fore- and background elements (see The Scarlet Empress, for example), The Blue Angel nevertheless brings more to the surface than Sternberg’s work previously. Some of his great silent features, like Docks of New York, were moody, atmospheric dramas in the vein of French films to come by Rene Clair, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carne, and Jean Renoir. With The Blue Angel, Sternberg shows his possible inspiration deriving more closely from Germany’s expressionistic output during the 1920s. While Sternberg denied any major filmic influence, and though he had been working in Hollywood and away from his homeland of Austria for some time, the echoes of these European classics are prominent. The obscuring lights and angles of darkened alleyways and the jagged rooftops all recall the synthetic sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; shadow play on walls strongly evoke Nosferatu.
The principal point of potential allusion to these Weimar-era films, however, is in the casting of Emil Jannings as Prof. Immanuel Rath. Sternberg had already worked with Jannings in The Last Command 2 years prior, and the star from such films as Faust, Tartuffe, and The Last Laugh brought with him a range of acting talent as well as strong associations with these German films. Here, as an old-fashioned absent-minded professor, Jannings is excellent in conveying a sense of bewilderment and anxiety. The upstanding teacher Rath is respected (except by his students) and is a man of regimented routine. When he catches wind of a certain Lola Lola and a place called The Blue Angel, he becomes intrigued. His students are distractingly enamored with this young lady and he hopes to catch them frequenting this tawdry hot spot.
Upon visiting the nightclub, Rath too is struck by Lola Lola, played charmingly by the 28-year-old, baby-faced Marlene Dietrich (her youthfulness fully apparent in screen tests included as a bonus feature on this disc). In years to come, a certain indescribable allure would be synonymous with Dietrich – in her films and persona – and here Lola, “naughty” Lola, is a perfect early embodiment of her casually provocative appeal. Additional features on the disc include singing performances by Dietrich from 1963 and 1972 and a brief excerpt from a 1971 interview — that appeal was still there.
Rath is dumbstruck by this freewheeling girl and develops a blind crush that starts his downfall. He is at once shocked and captivated by her sexually suggestive behavior and shameless good humor. Though not quite a femme fatale, Lola is a less than positive influence who clearly enjoys the sway she holds over this stuffy professor. Around Lola, Rath is a bumbling fool; one awkward move after another leads to one uncomfortable situation after another. Like the schoolboys he sought to implicate, Rath is now wholly enamored by Lola, so much so that he neglects his work, attaches himself to the wild assortment of entertainers making up Lola’s entourage, proposes marriage to the young woman, and joins their troupe in what is ultimately a tragically demeaning shift in occupation.
While Jannings was the prominent name at the time of production, The Blue Angel is most notable for being the start of Sternberg’s professional and personal connection with Dietrich. Bringing the actress back to America with him, Sternberg and studio heads hoped to have a new starlet to develop and advance, one who could potentially rival fellow European transplant Greta Garbo. Their second collaboration, Morocco, would be released first in the United States; both Sternberg and Dietrich would receive Oscar nominations for that picture. Five more films together would follow, as would a love affair and a strikingly unique cinematic pairing rarely matched in film history. Sternberg dubbed Dietrich his assistant, acknowledging their mutual creative process, but many thought of their association as one of directorial, Svengali-like control and manipulation. (Not so, says Dietrich’s daughter; what her mother had, and what she would become most famous for in terms of her screen presence, was there before Sternberg. He just helped give it a celebrated cinematic context.) In any event, Dietrich was seldom better than when she was directed by Sternberg, and his films minus the star were nearly always subpar.
As noted, The Blue Angel would represent the start of Sternberg’s trademark penchant for intricate and richly decorative set design, illumination, and costume. Much to the chagrin of certain cinematographers, Sternberg was obsessed with the visual composition of every element of his movies, often doing his lighting and camera work. While The Blue Angel balances a level of complexity and subtlety more than later features (no doubt due to a lower budget than his Hollywood movies), certain interiors signal what was to come. Set design serves a more realistic purpose in The Blue Angel. The books and academic bric-a-brac that litter Rath’s apartment are as would be expected in a professor’s home, yet the on-screen placement does have these items in what is an intentionally illustrative arrangement. Similarly, Lola’s backstage life consists of a barrage of assorted theatrical details and furnishings, the chaotic mess accentuated by the confined spaces and the comings and goings of her fellow performers. Again, Sternberg packs the frame, but for now, it’s mostly in the service of authenticity and not as in the later, more famous and striking forms of calculated organization. Costumes in The Blue Angel also befit the characters in a more practical manner than in future Sternberg films, where Dietrich would don everything from a suit and top hat to garish feather boas to an ape costume. Here, her outfits are somewhat outlandish, but only insofar as would be typical for a showgirl of this time and place.
Certain images and sequences from their other collaborations are probably more famous, but The Blue Angel as a whole might be the most prominent film Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together. This could be because it’s the one that started it all, or it might have something to do with the unique state of the film’s production, Sternberg on hiatus from Hollywood and working in Europe, filming English and German language versions simultaneously (both versions are available on this Kino release as well as a short, side-by-side comparison). It also stands out as being an early, and still somewhat imperfect, sound feature from two of film history’s major figures. Finally, The Blue Angel is a tragic love story, charming, funny, and wonderfully acted and directed, and it now looks and sounds great in this pleasing high-definition transfer.
— Jeremy Carr