Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Blue Angel

I recently saw the movie The Blue Angel, the 1930 German classic. It had been years since I had seen it, and I had forgotten how wonderful it really is.

For those of you who have never seen the film, The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, a teacher in an all-boys high school who is played by Emil Jannings. He discovers that his students aren’t doing their homework because they’re spending their evenings in a cabaret called “The Blue Angel”, where they have become enraptured with the featured singer named Lola, who is played by Marlene Dietrich. She is a classic femme fatale and Professor Rath soon falls in love with her. They marry, which leads to his degradation and ultimate destruction.

There’s some wonderful acting in the movie. Marlene Dietrich is well-cast as the femme fatale, but it’s Emil Jannings’ who really shines. I can’t remember seeing another actor who could communicate so much without saying a word. His use of gestures and facial expressions are masterful. This is pretty much a lost art in today’s films but Jannings spent his early career in silent movies, where such skills were essential. It’s too bad that he turned out to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis.

One thing I love about the movie is the symbolism that is all through it. For example, Rath lives in a rooming house. His landlady comes into his room at the beginning of the movie and notes that his bird is dead. She takes it out of its cage and tosses it into the furnace while remarking that it hadn’t sung in a long time. Later, upon waking up in Lola’s bed after their first night together, Rath discovers that she has a bird, and it is singing away.

There is also the symbolism of the clown. When Rath goes to The Blue Angel, there’s this sad-looking clown who shows up whenever Rath is about to do something foolish. At the end of the film, when the troup, of which Lola and Rath are members, returns to The Blue Angel, Rath is playing a clown in a degrading cabaret act. At his final performance, where Rath is utterly humiliated by the magician with whom he is working, Lola is watching from the wings with her new lover, a man who is much more handsome and charming than Rath.

Rath is so destroyed emotionally by the final cabaret act that he returns to the school where he taught. He’s still in the clown costume and, while sitting at his old desk, he suffers a fatal heart attack. When they try to remove the body, they can’t because, in rigor mortis, Rath is clinging to the desk so tightly. It is as though he died while symbolically clinging to his former life.

I also love Lola’s signature song, “Falling in Love Again”. The song isn’t really well translated in the film, but it still works. Lola sings the following lines and they pretty much sum up her character. “Men cluster to me/Like moths to a flame/And if their wings burn/I know I’m not to blame.” I love it! But there is also another “femme fatale” song that I like called Beware of Blonde Women. Amen to that.

The movie is not without weaknesses, the big one being the script. After Rath marries Lola, he ends up selling postcard pictures of her to the cabaret audience as a way of supplementing their income. Then we see a picture of days flying off of a calendar and four years pass in an instant, after which Rath has become the clown in the magic act. I thought that a little more time should have been devoted to Rath in his downward spiral. The script spends a goodly amount of time showing Rath’s relationship with his students. I felt that some of that could have been trimmed in order to elaborate things more at the end.


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