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Blu-ray Review: Smoldering Dietrich is Von Sternberg's 'Blue Angel' in Kino Restoration

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood December 19, 2012 at 2:38PM

“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.)
Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel
Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel

Pay attention to the sound design of “The Blue Angel.” During the sequences in Lola’s dressing room, the noise and brassy piano music from the theater is completely silenced by a closed door. When showgirls move in and out, and the door swings open, the hooting and hollering from the show suddenly intrudes into the dressing room. Surely an ordinary wooden door wouldn’t cut the racket, nor would von Sternberg clumsily expect the viewer to believe so. Why does the director insist on such a blunt difference in sound? I think he’s trying to create two spheres -- the performative, fantasy sphere of the stage, where women wear top hats and artificially blown-up skirts, singing about moth-like men burned in their seductive flames; and the real-life, behind-the-scenes sphere, where these same women get changed between numbers, and chat with their fellow performers.

Yet late in the film von Sternberg breaks the line between the showroom and backstage. By this point Rath is beset with poverty, selling cheeky postcards of Lola Lola for cash. As we see him move from table to table, von Sternberg cross-cuts to Lola in her dressing room. But the raucous sounds of the Blue Angel remain at full volume. The loud, shiny hell of stage life has crept into reality. It’s the party neither Rath nor Lola can escape.

Indeed, the last 30 minutes of “Blue Angel” are the film’s best, with Von Sternberg playing with noise and visuals to communicate a dream turned sour. Pages are torn from a calendar with a hot poker; first days, then years. During his wedding dinner, the professor crows like a rooster at his good fortune and beautiful bride. Later, when forced to appear onstage as a clown -- in front of his former students, no less -- he again crows. This time it’s the anguished cry of a man who’s brought about his own downfall.

The restored Blu-ray of "The Blue Angel" is available for purchase on Kino's website. Check out Marlene Dietrich's screentest for "The Blue Angel" here, in which she seamlessly moves between sweetly singing and venomously upbraiding her piano player. One of the few embeddable trailers is below, but without English subtitles.

This article is related to: Reviews, Kino, Blu-ray, Classics, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg, DVD and VOD, DVDs, Reviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.