The Blue Angel, 1930. 7/10

A dark drama centered around a cabaret. Stodgy professor, Dr. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jennings), looks in at the Blue Angel nightclub, ostensibly on a mission to see what’s distracting his students, but also out of curiosity. He finds himself smitten with one of the singers, Lola (Marlene Dietrich). We follow their relationship, and Rath’s eventual fall from grace.

His students are a fairly creative bunch, writing “Prof. Garbage” on his notebook, with an illustration, no less. He might appear befuddled, but the boys are nervy, lazy, and a bit afraid of him. Armed with evidence confiscated from students, Rath looks into the Blue Angel. Lola, seeing that he’s out of place, shines a spotlight on him.

He skulks arond backstage, and gets into her room.”I’m here on official business…you’re corrupting my students!” She responds that she’s not running a kindergarten. The magician and manager, Kiepert (Kurt Gerron) introduces himself; soon the two men are arguing about the students. There’s a huge sailor causing trouble, but Rath suddenly becomes Lola’s protector and actually throws the guy out; the police show up.

Rath and the boys were all hiding in the cellar and emerge at exactly the moment when the policeman comes near. Anyway, the policeman, figuring that Rath must be okay–he’s a gentleman, after all–takes the sailor away instead. Having disposed of the problem, Rath’s pretty much won over the Blue Angel crew. Next thing we know, he’s staying at Lola’s place. How do we know? Because he wakes up clutching a doll, not to mention, she has songbirds, just like he did.

At this point, they probably don’t know how they feel. “You could have this (coffee) every day” she lets on. “There’s no reason why not” he decides. Back at school, however, the boys are really going to town, drawing cupid-like pictures of him on the blackboard. He’s completely lost them. Accordingly, the headmaster (Eduard Von Winterstein), looking like a sober, sawed-off version of the sailor, intervenes “To risk one’s entire future for that kind of woman?” is his comment, after a rather droll appraisal of the students’ cartoonish artwork.

Rath drops the bombshell that he’s going to marry “that kind of woman.” And, so he does. His actual proposal, though, is a prophetic moment; Lola, not at first taking him seriously, laughs hysterically. But she quickly recovers her composure, and accepts. Touchingly, like a big extended family, the Blue Angel regulars give them a nice party.

The downside is that Rath, fired from his teaching job, is reduced to selling postcards to customers at the Blue Angel. So, just that quickly, their marriage is in trouble. Seems like neither one is satisfied, “I’d rather die like a dog rather than live this life one more day!” He storms out, but almost immediately comes back.

About five years go by. We see Rath putting on a clown’s disguise. Kiepert is still his cheery self, announcing that the group is going to perform at the Blue Angel. Rath hates the thought of it; but he’s really got no choice. The Strongman, Mazeppa (Hans Albers) introduces himself to Lola, laying on a lot of schlocky charm. Anyway, soon enough the show opens. Backstage Kiepert tells Rath “this could be a turning point in your career” Rath looks anything but eager. It’s like a perfect storm for him: not only is the place sold out, but his former students and even the mayor is there. On top of that, Mazeppa pops in, slinking up to Lola. Rath is about ready to explode.

He’s first introduced formally, and then as Kiepert’s “apprentice sorcerer.” He stands there like a statue, while Mazeppa makes out with Lula backstage. Prompted repeatedly to crow (as part of the hen’s egg trick), he finally let’s out a really authentic version. He plunges backstage, bursts into Lola’s room, and starts strangling her, still loudly crowing. Then he turns his fury on Mazeppa. Finally, he ends up in a straight-jacket.

Luckily, he’s not arrested, and Kiepert, though upset, is not unsympathetic. But Rath’s skulking around like a ghost, out in the snowy streets. He manages to get into his old school, and literally expires, slumped over the desk he once had. Very fitting end to this tragic tale.

It’s said that Rath personifies the indignities felt by post-World War I Germans, or even of Germany itself. That’s a handy set of analogies, and can’t be disregarded. But Rath is really never respected; even before he meets Lola (‘pre-war’, so to speak). Ironically, it’s the other performers who provide the only companionship and respect that he does have. Kiepert, for his part, never really gives up on him–he overlooks completely Rath’s initial disdain.

Mazeppa, of course, is an opportunistic jerk. Lola is hard to read; she probably never loves him, but she does like him. When it comes down to it though, it’s her carrying on with Mazeppa that drives Rath over the edge. The long scene of Rath performing (or merely existing) as a clown is the best part of the movie. Supremely tragic, full of nuance and suspense.

I find this sort of movie hard to rate. As a very early talkie, the sound/dialogue is fairly well-meshed in. The restriction to a couple of settings: the Blue Angel itself, the school, and, occasionally, the streets, is pretty much in the Expressionist vogue of German interwar cinema–for the most practical of reasons–that it’s economical. Even the outdoor scenes, at night, in bad weather, are claustrophobic, which seems intentional.

The comic aspect is odd, but it fits, nonetheless. Some of it borders on slapstick (the guys in the cellar getting caught by the police). But the relentless taunting Rath gets from the students, while still funny, is both darker and damaging. Of course, Rath’s painful, yet unintentionally amusing clown act is horrifically dark.

Among the many interesting bits of this scene, it’s really hard to judge the crowd’s mood. They definitely want to see him; but, why? Mostly out of curiosity, as a literal freak show. Yet they don’t actually taunt him; one guy protests against the nature of the act itself, but it’s not clear if he’s defending Rath, the animals, or both.

As I’ve hinted, this scene is loaded–we’re completely unsure what’s going to happen–except we can figure that it’s not going to end quietly. In a way, Rath gets to end things on his own terms. It’s easy to blame Lola for messing up his life, but he knew that they had nothing in common. More importantly, he should’ve known that, while she showed him affection, she really had no use for him. He just couldn’t believe that she could be malicious. Maybe, as with his students, although he knew they thought he was a stick-in-the-mud, he still had a measure of respect, due to his ‘position.’

Rath’s dilemma is that society won’t allow him any boundary between his public and private lives. This might make the most solid case for the movie depicting the polarities in Weimar Germany. The conservative foundation of society (the school administration) cannot abide his marriage to a ‘floozy’, while he’s further undone by the rebellion of a hedonistic younger generation (his students). So, ironically, maybe Rath does fit in best with the Blue Angel actors, as they are apart from either faction, are all outsiders (and literally transient), and make no arbitrary distinctions among people.

There’s something deterministic about The Blue Angel. No matter what Rath does, he loses. As mentioned, though, he does have agency in his decision to marry Lola. We get the feeling that he wasn’t exactly happy before he met her; his free will is stunted, perhaps, by his background (which we know nothing about) and experience. He’s been dealt a bad hand, and, in playing it out, loses. He has literally become a clown.

Farmermouse thought all those rooftops and cobblestone streets were great for scampering around, so he gives this seven of Lola’s show posters. 7/10.

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