“Beware of blondes. They’re special, every one.”
It was interesting to discover Josef von Sternberg‘s career started in Hollywood, directing many late-silent era pictures. I assumed the Austrian-born auteur began in Europe because he was the man behind the camera for Germany’s first feature-length talkie, Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel]. But his helming it was actually at the behest of German star Emil Jannings who—despite reportedly clashing on set of their previous film together, The Last Command, where he won the Oscar for Best Actor—wanted Sternberg to guide him through his sound debut. The director would eventually return to Hollywood with new star Marlene Dietrich, but his legacy will always be intertwined with this German cinema classic. And its depiction of a college professor’s tragic downfall via lust is worth the distinction.
Based on the novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann—a political satire of Germany’s educational system’s class distinctions—the film introduces us to staid Professor Immanuel Rath (Jannings). He’s a man of routine, his maid bringing breakfast and helping him with jacket and hat each morning before class. He finds himself at odds with his students, their unruly bunch quick to call him “Garbage” (the translation of “Unrat,” a play on his surname) with but one brown-nose ally. Unable to see the changing times as a venue for this lack of respect, Rath keys in on postcards found of cabaret star Lola Lola (Dietrich) as the cause of their corruption. So he goes to The Blue Angel nightclub to catch the boys and also chastise their fixation.
Sternberg wasn’t interested in the book’s politics or the notion that his film could be construed as meaningful in the context of a nation not far-removed from World War I and as yet unknowingly working towards World War II. In this way he ensured the script written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, and Robert Liebmann fit his sensibilities rather than Mann’s. The second half of the book is excised and the ending reworked to put the onus on Rath as a man falling prey to the charms of a beautiful woman. It becomes almost a metaphor for the industry with old guard and new guard clashing—silent versus sound, Jannings versus Dietrich. We watch Rath become infatuated by what could happen, only to discover his own obsolescence.
It just takes a smile and a drink to win him over, his physically comic hysterics upon finding himself trapped backstage with Lola in various states of undress while searching for his students quieted by her attention. Although his bluster still renders him off-balance enough to leave his hat behind and take her undergarments (albeit the latter proving a direct result of a student hiding within the room). So this mix-up gives him reason to return the next night with a more measured demeanor. Through unforeseen circumstances he finds his guard lowered, his chivalry heightened, and before long he’s waking up in her bed the next morning due to a wealth of alcohol. She plays the part with a kiss goodbye and he leaves with renewed vitality.
The first half of the film becomes a hopeful farce of sorts with the professor finding himself in situations an aging bachelor of respectability normally wouldn’t. It’s a joy to watch him awkwardly engage in such incongruous activities to his nature because the discomfort leads him to either be completely silent in embarrassment or over-the-top manic in a desire to feign control. Even though his boys don’t respect him or his classroom from the beginning, they fake it enough at the start to not be sent to the principal. But just as Rath saw them at the club, they saw him. What little reverence for his position they had disappears, their pranks growing bolder after acknowledging he cannot reprimand them without implicating himself. It’s all rather entertaining.
But Sternberg isn’t interested in this idea of farce when moving into Act Two on the back of an improbable marriage proposal between Rath and Lola. Because of what he showed us previous, we hope these nuptials are genuine despite her initial laughter at the thought. We still believe that maybe the satire will continue with more run-ins between the professor and the educational establishments looking down upon his being with a “lower class” woman. This isn’t what happens, though. Rather than give Rath a forum to expose the hypocrisy and help build a new world order of sorts, Sternberg decides to showcase the exact opposite. He provides the tragedy of love instead: its ability to blind us of foresight and reveal itself no more than lustful desire.
Years go by at an expedited speed through montages and jump cuts showing dreams replaced by reality. This once proud man who told his bride she’d never sell another lewd postcard of herself becomes the man selling them to strangers. This once dignified professor of literature who recited Shakespeare and taught boys how to pronounce English words correctly finds himself relegated to a cabaret clown caught beneath the thumb of his troupe’s manager (Kurt Gerron) like the rest. Suddenly this lighter look at love conquering all with socio-economic walls collapsing becomes a cautionary tale. Whereas Lola proved a distraction to the boys—an ideal to aspire towards—her sensuality was corrupting no one by Rath. Her job was to hook wealthy men and she did exactly that.
Think of it as the talkies luring silent film royalty with the promise of newfound success only to discover they aren’t fit for that world. As acting moves from broad performance to nuanced emotion with a proficiency in musicality, those who once shined in the industry become relegated to supporting roles as new stars rise. It was Jannings who brought Sternberg to Germany and it was Dietrich that he took back to Hollywood. The former won an Oscar in 1929 while the latter was nominated in 1931—a truth that shouldn’t be dismissed as coincidence. Even though there are some magnificently shot moments of Jannings’ despair in empty shots fading to black that recall silent era dramatics, we remember Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)”.
We remember more than that, but I’m being hyperbolic. In the end I think what I’ll take with me is Jannings’ heartbreaking performance even if it’s a little overbearing at times. It’s an unforgettable progression from uncertainty galvanizing into confident pride to that arrogance dismantling him into a walking ghost desperate for a return to what he can no longer have. Dietrich is phenomenal too as the con artist who cannot stop herself from playing any potential angle no matter what consequences will ultimately result. She was thought to be his angel, a bright spot in an otherwise drab existence that gave him hope for the future. But she was actually a drug giving just enough to own him and he an addict forsaking life for empty promises.