Emil Jannings had a gift for ruin. At his most refined, Jannings demands an air of respect in the sway of his portly stature and commands with a set of impressive whiskers. It is a form he has slipped into effortlessly many times from Generals to Mephisto, Kings and Czars. And then an event sets these figures on a downward spiral.
Jannings wavers in his previously confident movements, his eyes glaze at the departure of his mind, and he suffers hell and humiliation until he is nothing more than a tattered shadow of his former glory. Jannings’ two greatest roles, and two of the all time greatest, showcase this poignant talent and are almost mirror images of one another; The Last Laugh and The Blue Angel.
Jannings takes his place among respected society as Professor Immanuel Rath. He is a rigid educator causing waves of silence upon entering class. But his coldness turns to scolding as he discovers students carrying signed postcards of a beautiful woman from the shady nightclub The Blue Angel. Jannings sets out to the club with the intention of saving his students from shame, but instead, comes face to face with his match; the sexually electric femme fatale Lola Lola.
The ‘IT’ or X factor of these characters can be faked and have been so by some, but like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, the effect is compounded by an actress mirroring her reality. Marlene Dietrich was little known when she auditioned for director Josef Von Sternberg, and she saw the meeting as another pointless exercise without hope of securing the part.
What Sternberg saw was a beautiful woman, voted 60th sexiest star of all time, with vivacity and a dangerous quality, underlined by a world weariness. Dietrich’s performance of ‘Falling in Love Again’ in a top hat and fishnet stockings stole the show and immortalised her in a tale of tragedy.
The Blue Angel’s tragedy is no great secret, the Professor’s downward trajectory is roughly clear from the outset. But the intimate exchanges between such polar opposites is fascinating. Rath is the morally uptight and repressed individual, whilst Lola Lola is sexually liberated and playful. In one scene, she happily changes costume to baffle and befuddle the Professor, a devilish glint in her eye suggesting she loves every second of his squirming.
Sternberg reinforces uncomfortable intimacy in a light expressionistic cinematography which depicts crooked streets surrounding the bordello. But the real star is the club itself. The Blue Angel is a network of claustrophobic rooms cluttered with vaudevillian props and costumes. Sternberg uses sound to reinforce the seclusion and birders of the room as sound floods in as performers change for the next act, and abruptly stop as they leave. Each time, Lola and Rath are forced closer and closer on their journey to ruin.
A step on this journey which confuses some viewers is the marriage, but upon reflection it is perfectly natural. Each character holds something the other wishes to posses in their life; the Professor yearns for sexuality beyond his rigid experiences, and Lola is desperate for respect from a respectable man, rare to frequent The Blue Angel. Lola my be something of Lulu in her sexual power, but innocence is not something they share, Lola is jaded by experience and Rath may be the key to her salvation.
But this is an impossibility as Dietrich succinctly explains, ‘Most women set out to change a man, and when they have changed him they do not like him’. Lola is a venus fly trap. Perpetually alluring, drawing the victim to her, then slowly, but imminently, ensnaring him. When devoured, a new fly must be lured in. Ruth’s future and past are mirrored within The Blue Angel. At his lowest ebb, a new suitor arrives with the promise he once held. Early in the story, a clown is present, wandering the club without a word. But his longing gazes and broken demeanour mean more than we can anticipate at the beginning.
The tragedy of The Blue Angel is a story of success. Sternberg created his masterpiece to critical acclaim and Marlene Dietrich rocketed to international icon status. Jannings, sadly, was reaching his own real life spiral. He dedicated himself to acting for the Nazi regime in propaganda pieces such as Uncle Kruger, an anti-British film. When the Second World War ended, he was left without a career in ignominy and ruin.
The travelling act of Lola Lola and company returns to its roots of The Blue Angel. The Professor is now part of the act, a clown apprentice to the great magician. The town turns out to see their dear old professor as a magicians apprentice and clown. They cheer as he appears, but quickly the act turns sour. Rath is disorientated and likely drunk forgetting his act. The magician pulls egg after egg from the Professor’s ear, hissing to crow as they rehearsed. Finally, the Professor does, in a manner akin to a passing joke at his wedding. The effect now is disquieting and pitiful.