There aren’t many films from the early age of talking pictures that still reverberate in our memories. One of them is The Blue Angel directed by Josef von Sternberg that came out in 1930 and made Marlene Dietrich a star virtually over night. The story is loosely based on the first half of the novel Small Town Tyrant (Professor Unrat - literally meaning Professor Garbage, but missing the play on words in German that turns the real name of the professor, Raat, into Unrat) by Heinrich Mann, the older brother of the Nobel Prize laureate 1955 for literature Thomas Mann, that first appeared in print in 1905.
At the time when The Blue Angel was made the German film industry was at its height. The UFA (Universum-Film AG) had been founded in 1917 and had produced many successful silent films. In the late 1920s, however, established directors like Josef von Sternberg and popular silent film actors like Emil Jannings had to face the challenge of talking pictures. As shows the musical comedy Singin' in the Rain from 1952 starring Gene Kelly, Debby Reynolds, and Danny Kaye the transition wasn’t easy for everyone.
The story of The Blue Angel is set in an unnamed small German town in the late 1920s. Professor Immanuel Rath (played by Emil Jannings) is a respectable teacher (or a Professor in German terminology) at the local high-school. Manners and morality are an important part of education at the time. When the old professor intercepts suggestive photos of Lola-Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich) who is the star of the local vaudeville called The Blue Angel, he is indignant because it means that his students frequent the infamous place. The strict moralist that he is wants to catch them in the act in the vaudeville. However, in The Blue Angel he meets Lola-Lola and falls for her at once. The situation in school then becomes uncontrollable because his students know of his relationship to Lola-Lola and taunt him without mercy. When other teachers, the director and the inhabitants of the small town discover his unsuitable relationship Professor Rath is urged to resign from his post. Lola-Lola accepts to be his wife, but the initial happiness doesn’t last. Lola-Lola is too independent to change her life-style for her husband. Before long the professor is compelled to make his living as the stooge of a magician. The experience is humiliating for him. He watches his permissive wife with growing jealousy and when he sees her kiss the strongman Mazeppa (played by Hans Albers) he runs amok. The furious professor tries to strangle Lola-Lola, but the rest of the troupe rescues her. Beaten up severely and once more humiliated Professor Rath returns to his classroom in high-school.
Josef von Sternberg clothed the plot of The Blue Angel into a series of sinister, even disturbing pictures as is characteristic of German Expressionism between 1918 and 1933. Broad performance still underlines emotions like it would have in a silent picture, but unlike other directors of his time Josef von Sternberg already started to work with sound as well. The film was shot both in German and in English (dubbing was difficult in the beginning age of talking pictures) so also an English-speaking audience can enjoy the original voices of Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. The film is likewise known for the songs of Marlene Dietrich, among them Falling in Love Again (Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt) and They Call Me Naughty Lola (Ich bin die fesche Lola).
The Blue Angel displays the hypocrisy and cruelty of society that shuns everybody who oversteps the borders of social conventions and that on the other hand doesn’t allow the professor to really become a part of the vaudeville. His fate is that of the lonely outsider who is doomed to exist in an in-between world, despised, ridiculed and humiliated by everybody. Nowadays much of the plot may seem outdated, but there are themes that are very up-to-date. It shows very clearly where constant humiliation can lead. In a time when bullying is a growing problem, we cannot be reminded of it too often.