“The Blue Angel,” a crowning achievement of Weimar cinema and the most famous of the seven collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, is newly on Blu-ray from Kino. The finely restored transfer, with sharp picture quality and crisp sound highlighting Von Sternberg’s early-talkie innovations, is the original German-language version. (Two versions were shot simultaneously in 1930 -- the lesser known English-language version was long considered a lost film until its discovery in the early 2000s.)
Silent star Emil Jannings plays Immanuel Rath, a cantankerous professor at the local mens’ college. Upon learning that his students are frequenting the Blue Angel, a racy showgirl joint headlined by the excessively named Lola Lola (Dietrich), the professor pays a visit to the bar of ill repute to cow the young men. Instead, he too becomes obsessed with Lola, eventually asking for her hand in marriage. But as the honeymoon bliss wears thin and the cash in Rath’s pockets wears down, the one-time professor, now a regular dancehall bum, must seek increasingly humiliating employment on the same stage from which he first admired his wife.
Dietrich, in one of her most iconic roles, is sheer sex and wit as Lola Lola. She’s plumper than she was later in Hollywood, and seemingly less severe and intimidating. This is perhaps due to the actress speaking in her native German, as opposed to German-accented English, which gave her a regal, distancing quality. Dietrich’s performance in the film is at once energetic, funny and surprisingly subtle. While crooning “Falling in Love Again,” she stands with her legs squarely apart, as if her body is a sturdy barricade ready to turn men to jelly. Yet in quieter moments backstage, she drops the aggressive body language and lets her face do the talking. When the destitute Rath whines about playing a clown in an upcoming show, she sighs and says simply: “No one will force you.” But her eyes communicate years of having to go onstage, even when weary and unenthused. A job is a job.