Weimar cinema isn’t my forte, but after featuring Marlene Dietrich in my inaugural July Five event, I wanted to review the movie which propelled her into international cinema. Kino Classics apparently read my mind as they recently released Dietrich’s début, The Blue Angel, in a comprehensive two-disc Blu-ray set. The two-disc treatment is warranted considering Kino encloses the original German cut as well as the English copy which was feared lost for several years. The movie takes some getting used to, both in terms of its stark formalism and German expressionistic qualities coupled with the shaky audio, but Dietrich sizzles and scorches on-screen making this a solid addition to your collection if you’re a fan of Dietrich and/or international cinema.
Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) is a teacher at a prep school for young boys. Unfortunately, his students are distracted by the image of the vivacious cabaret singer, Lola-Lola (Dietrich). Desperate to keep the boys focused on their studies, Rath goes to the club to confront Lola-Lola, only to end up suckered by her charm himself.
Before I begin, the Kino Blu-ray includes both the English and German cuts of the movie, with the only difference being about 3 minutes of additional footage. Due to being sick this week I watched the English version to cut down on eye strain, so this review is of the English version filmed simultaneously with the German version. German cinema during the 1930s, particularly the work of UFA and Emil Jannings, are outside my wheelhouse so I won’t even begin to give a historical analysis of their work. Coming into this movie blind, with the only knowledge being Dietrich’s performance, I was struck by the world created in Josef von Sternberg‘s The Blue Angel. The sharp angles and distorted expressions – particularly from Jannings – presents a surreal, abstract world even before the movie enters the nightclub.
Jannings is intimidating with his booming voice and bearing, and when he looks at the young boys he shoots dagger. At times, his melodramatic appearance looks like it’s ripped from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Its blending of reality with provocative illusion deepens once Rath meets Lola-Lola. The movie’s premise is a taste out-dated with Lola being the temptress leading the upright Christian man into the depths of his own personal Hell; the lady personified as original sin. If it was any other woman I wouldn’t buy it, but Dietrich sells it well. Her musical numbers, the iconic “They Call Me Naughty Lola” and “Falling in Love Again,” are throaty odes to love and sexuality. It may be 1930, but you can tell Lola isn’t talking about cuddling. Dietrich is in her element, and it’s the beginning of a personal and professional relationship with von Sternberg culminating with her cementing her status as an exotic A-list leading lady. Her chemistry with Jannings is electric because Lola-Lola is a huckster who sells it; she dupes the audience as much as Rath.
The movie can lumber a bit since everyone other than Lola-Lola is so formal and uptight. Jannings’ character’s descent is Dante-esque and while your sympathy is with him, there’s no escaping just how academic and precise he is. There’s a reason Dietrich stands out when this movie is mentioned, because she’s the lively breath of fresh air in a staid movie. von Sternberg’s other work with Dietrich, Morocco especially, has a more easygoing and accessible mien. This is a staunch example of German cinema, but it won’t dispel any notions of German movies being depressing.
The two-disc Blu-ray looks wonderful considering this movie is 82 years old and the earliest representation of German cinema out there. I mentioned the English and German versions are included, which is fun if you want to feel the subtle changes in tone. The German version increases the formalism, but also has a comfortable vibe compared to the English version where many of the actors weren’t well-versed in the language. The German version comes with handy English subtitles which sadly aren’t available on the English cut. Unfortunately, the audio is the weakest element of this set. I desperately wanted English subtitles on the English cut because there are several moments where the muddy dubbing is incomprehensible. It’s through no fault of Kino’s; they’re working with what they have. If you have hearing issues, you’ll have to watch the German cut. About halfway through the English version I switched to the German, and while the audio is about equal, I was able to understand the movie far better via subtitles. The picture is amazing, again factoring in the movie’s age and preservation.
There aren’t many bonus features, but what’s included are short novelty segments worth running through. There’s a brief scene comparison meant to show the differences between the English and German cuts. The scenes in question aren’t much, comprising only three minutes, but they’re fun to see in the context of both versions. I loved the inclusion of Marlene Dietrich’s screentest which has her smoking a cigarette while singing “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.” Dietrich has more star power and “wow” in a three-minute screentime than any actress today. There’s also a series of interviews from the 1960s-1970s featuring brief performances of the movie’s songs. Additionally, there are trailers for the movie both from the 1930s and its 1960s re-release and an image gallery.
The Blue Angel is a landmark piece of international cinema and a robust début for Marlene Dietrich. The narrative can be a taste stiff, especially with Jannings sending you shivers. Kino gives the Blu-ray full-court press with both cuts, although you’ll need to watch the German cut if you want subtitles or can’t understand the dialogue in the English edition. If there’s any foreign film fans or Dietrich aficionados you need to purchase gifts for this Christmas, check out Kino’s copy of The Blue Angel.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.