How appropriate that the film which launched Marlene Dietrich to stardom (although it was far from her first role) should begin with a woman cleaning a window behind which is Dietrich's poster as Lola Lola – and then measuring herself up against this idealised image.
In this equation, it is the unglamorous reality of the street (or later, the stage) that is more on the mind of director Josef von Sternberg than the illusory ideal – setting the pattern for the pitiless logic of The Blue Angel.
The films Sternberg would go on to make with Dietrich in Hollywood are lush, baroque, often camp affairs. The Blue Angel – which was filmed simultaneously in somewhat different English and German language versions – shows the director still in his Expressionist phase, tailoring a dark, heavy style to emphasise the powerful histrionics of Emil Jannings.
The latter plays Professor Rath, a respected schoolteacher who falls under the spell of Lola after he goes into the den of iniquity known as "The Blue Angel" to investigate the unhealthy obsession of his male students.
It is a tale, taken from Heinrich Mann's novel, of decline, of downward mobility. In the course of the story, Rath will be reduced to a barely human clown – echoing the previous clown in the club who functions as one of several ironic doubles for the doomed hero.
Sternberg emphasises, with exemplary and systematic rigour, the verticality of the film's spatial relations: Rath is always in a low position looking up at the image of Lola (as when she throws her underpants down on his head), unless – in a parody of his authoritative position – he is put on display in the Gods by the theatre's sinister manager.
Lola is a classic femme fatale insofar as she lures men and then moves on when she tires of them – and, along the way, enjoys treating them like slaves. Yet there is also, for a time, a tender, loyal side in her relationship with Rath – we can believe she really loves him – and when she reprises the famous "Falling in Love Again" we can almost accept her passive acceptance of her vagabond romantic destiny ("I know I'm not to blame").
© Adrian Martin April 2003