Thursday, March 15, 2012

A charming, alarming blonde woman

Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) 1930 UFA Germany (German version, 106 minutes; English version, 94 minutes) directed by Josef von Sternberg; based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrath.
This early UFA sound classic couples Emil Jannings, one of silent film’s greatest stars, with the ‘charming, alarming blonde’ Marlene Dietrich on her way to make a mark as a Hollywood legend.
Jannings plays a middle aged pedant with little experience of women who falls head over heels in love with Dietrich’s Lola Lola, flashing her shapely gams to lusty effect at The Blue Angel, a cabaret in a port’s red light district.  
It is a fairy tale that could not possibly come to a good end. Director Josef von Sternberg and his compatriots Ernst Lubitsch and Georg W. Pabst titillated audiences with the theme of the older ‘sugar daddy’ and the ‘fallen’ ingénue.
Despite their subsequent history reflected in the available trailer, Jannings is the star of this picture. Dietrich, whom the Weimar—and later Nazi—film powerhouse Universum Film AG, or UFA, had declined to offer an acting contract, was on a ship to the United States when this movie came out in Germany.
The film’s expressionist sets contrast the right angles and straight lines of the day lit world of the academy and carved medieval saints’ orderly, hourly parade around the clock of the town’s cathedral with the crooked, shadier corners of the German life and psyche. It was from those darker corners that graphic artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz captured the spirit of the times in their work.
Many of the actors, especially those in roles such as the fat cabaret owner (Karl Huszar-Puffy), troupe director Zauberkunstler [magician] Kiepart (Kurt Gerron) and his wife Guste (Rosa Valetti), their ‘girls,’ and extras such as black seamen in the club, would come from the same source.
A black negroid kewpie doll the professor finds in Lola’s bed when he awakes after spending his first night with her underlines this; the doll plays a romantic tune when he lifts its arm. One easily can imagine this image in a contemporary etching, which the emerging, light-loving Nazis would deride as ‘degenerate art’ [entartete kunst].
However, the most remarkable thing about this classic German film is the great silent acting performance by Jannings at the head of this competent cast of silent actors.
Coming from an era in which all film acting was done in mime—an art closer to dance than theater—it is a wonder to watch the qualities and depth Jannings mines to animate his Herr Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath. His work is equal to his tour-de-force performance in F. W. Murnau’s classic Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924).
David Denby provides noteworthy and concise insights on the art of silent film acting in his essay The Artists, published last month [Feb. 27, 2012] in The New Yorker, with reference to the success of last year’s much ballyhooed ‘silent film’.
One of Der blaue Engel’s many great scenes shows an august Rath pacing on one side of swaying sheer silk curtains with the silhouette of his new wife, Lola Lola (Dietrich), in various stages of undress moving in opposite directions on the other side.
Lola disappears to the right: Rath moves to take a quick, prurient peek through the curtains after her, and then sits down. Lola pops her head out from where he had peeked and asks for a suitcase. Quick to comply, Rath fumbles the case, it falls to the floor and springs open, spilling a set of Lola Lola ‘French postcards’ sold to audiences during her show. When Rath objects to them, Lola teasingly scolds him less with words than her body wrapped in the sheer silk curtain.
It was a Lola Lola image that first piqued Rath’s interest when he confiscated several of these cards from his gymnasium students in the beginning of the film. One card shows Dietrich in dark stockings and garters, with feathers appliquéd at her waist like a skirt which, lightly blown upon, reveal her silk bloomered thighs.
It is fascinating to watch Jannings work, but the story is easy to read in each actor’s face and gestures. One gets a good sense of the art of silent acting by comparing this film’s German and English versions, produced simultaneously for domestic and foreign release. The Kino International Inc. DVD set provides a copy of both versions.
The use of English gives the story a slightly different flavor, but the dialog makes little difference because both versions are essentially the same silent film in which the actors physically do what they say in German.
The German version is an early talkie with all the virtues of good silent cinema; it relies on mime and visuals cues, with a garnish of spoken dialog. For the English version, von Sternberg reshot Jannings and Dietrich doing their dialogs in English. Dietrich’s English is better than Jannings’ (in the latter film, she actually plays an English-speaking actress). Jannings’ German-accented English serves his character, though he comes off more a negative ethnic stereotype in the English version than in the original.
The key comes with the other roles. In the English version, an assortment of the other actors also redoes their lines in English with varying degrees of fluency. But von Sternberg reuses the shots and scenes in which non-English-speaking secondary characters such as the professor’s landlady and other women in the cabaret appear alone speaking German without subtitles.
As a singer, Dietrich has less range than an average rock vocalist. Yet she has a otherworldly screen presence (the DVD set includes German and English screen tests she did for von Sternberg)—so commanding, one can only surmise, that UFA let her go because they did not think they could handle her.  
Nimm dich in acht vor blonden Frauen,
die haben so etwas gewisses!

No comments:

Post a Comment