Director Josef von Sternberg's 1930 classic is an erotic tragedy documenting the head-turning, befuddling fumes of female loveliness. It revolves around a very American Beauty moment, when an ordinary member of society is reawakened -- via a lightning bolt to the groin -- to female flesh.
But such epiphanies are rarely transformative in a good or productive way in film. Instead, this sudden, violent onset of sexual desire tends to consume the men -- from Kevin Spacey's jaded suburbanite in American Beauty to Lolita's Humbert Humbert -- who have dared to let ardor determine their life's course. Rath is no different. He's a man who strays from the path of polite society by loving a fallen woman, and ends up debased and ruined by that fatal infatuation.
Emil Jannings, the hapless loser of the German and American cinema perpetually falling from his social perch in films like The Last Command and The Last Laugh, stars as the lapsed Professor Rath. He discovers his inner Cary Grant under the influence of Lola Lola, the lead chanteuse in a debauched Weimer-era nightclub act that somehow combines the unsavory perversity of a freak show and grindhouse.
A local high school instructor, Rath is ridiculed by his students for his slovenly appearance and distracted ways. But he soon gives these schoolboys a fresh lesson in self-destructive passion when a journey to the Blue Angel cafe, to look up the woman who has become the class sex object, becomes an exercise in self-annihilation. Suddenly, the uptight moralist is transformed into a cowed, lust-drunk libertine mocked by his students for his involvement with an unsavory woman.
Perched on the nightclub stage surrounded by comparably scantily clad chorines, Lola Lola wears costumes cut with one goal in mind: to reveal her lacy panties and outrageous gams. Lola Lola shares the Blue Angel stage with plump, weathered-looking girls, a dancing bear and a listless clown in a defeated ambiance that's more rec room at the asylum than freewheeling entertainment. It's a thoroughly depraved setting where Lola Lola's "manager" arranges sexual favors between her and a visiting sailor, and the customers heckle the talent like teenage boys on a joyride. Von Sternberg's nightclub is a place not governed by the rules of the bourgeois society from which Rath hails. There is no fourth wall in this performance hall, separating audience and performer, and the implication is that the usual propriety doesn't apply in other realms as well. Lola Lola is a goddess of a uniquely accessible bent, a beauty to be had by all. With her wily attitude, Dietrich prefigured the libertine woman-on-top of future generations exemplified by Madonna -- women whose sadistic control over the male libido is the center of their arsenal of enticements.
The role of Lola Lola played upon the unique formula that would become Marlene Dietrich's erotic trademark: a mix of blatant sexuality and an icy, insolent detachment that only reaffirms her erotic appeal as an exquisite creature that men may sleep with but can never truly possess. Rath is just one more bug trapped within the sticky filigree of her web. He abandons his respectable job and life, takes to the road with Lola and finally ends up as her chump in a shocking, twisted display of personal degradation.
From costuming to set design, von Sternberg was a master of decadent, lavish ambiance, as in his effective portrait of the Blue Angel as a kettle of sin. Professor Rath first enters the Blue Angel by suggestively parting a veil of netting and lace, like an explorer pushing vines aside to penetrate the jungle. And Dietrich's costuming is a triumph of sexual subterfuge as well. Her undergarments -- a medley of garter belts and skirts of cream puff tulle -- look positively edible, like a meringue that would melt in one's mouth.
The Blue Angel is so thick with sex and perversity, the Nazis banned the film for its sordid "un-German" tone in 1933. And that eroticism certainly carried over to real life, with von Sternberg's wife eventually suing Dietrich for alienating the affections of her husband as the two sailed for Hollywood. Their collaboration would result in six more films and produce some of the most bizarre, visually outsized films in movie history.
An early primer in the perverse von Sternberg style, this Blue Angel has been restored and features a hilarious, unforgettably saucy screen test of Dietrich's audition, making this the definitive version of this priceless collaboration of a brilliant film stylist and his greatest muse.
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