On April 1st, 1930 the world was first introduced to Marlene Dietrich, in the role of Lola Lola, when The Blue Angel premiered in Berlin. Depending on what version of the story you hear, director Josef von Sternberg first spotted her at a cabaret or Dietrich arrived one day at his office, unannounced, with a letter from her employer asking for a small part in his next film. Both visions are legendary in their own right, contributing in their own way to the formation of the Dietrich mythos.
In The Blue Angel, Emil Janning plays Professor Rath, a school teacher who falls in love with a cabaret singer, Lola Lola. He encounters her by accident, as he tries to catch some of his students breaking curfew. Her hooded eyes and high cheekbones draw him in, even though she can barely crack a smile or even a simulacrum of enthusiasm. Abandoning all dignity and decorum, he throws his entire life away just to remain close to the object of his obsession.
Marlene Dietrich would become one of the biggest stars to ever grace the silver screen. In movies like Morrocco, Shanghai Express, Witness to the Prosecution and Touch of Evil, she shaped herself as one of the great seductresses of Hollywood. Much of this persona can be traced back to The Blue Angel, and more specifically, to her collaboration with Sternberg. The closeness of their relationship and his input informing her screen identity has been compared to Pygmalion, the myth wherein a sculptor falls in love with his creation and she comes to life.
There was a physical transformation. Dietrich lost weight and went through extensive training with Sternberg. They worked on finding the perfect light chiaroscuro to amplify her hooded eyes and disguise what they felt was her strangely shaped nose. Her make-up and hair changed, and her voice, which was still somewhat sharp in The Blue Angel, was rounded off to be slow and sensual. Based on the fact that even after Dietrich and Sternberg split, Dietrich held onto this persona - including working into contracts strict lighting conditions - that they were equal partners in the formation of Dietrich the Movie Star.
As a fairly prolific actor, it’s difficult to prescribe a single persona to Dietrich’s career. She was a rather diverse talent who had a unique sense of naturalism and irony to her performances. Her “exoticism” meant she was often cast a femme fatale or seductress, but she was more than capable of being of playing against type. Yet, as a sex symbol, she has never really strained far from her infamous incarnation as Lola Lola, that is a somewhat apathetic man-eater whose beauty and sensuality sends men into ruin.
Her appeal lies heavily in the masochism of the men who pursue her. She is larger than life, a force of mythology, more than a person. The tragedy of Professor Rath in The Blue Angel is not that he is seduced by a beautiful younger woman, it is that she never so much as expresses the vaguest interest in him. Even as they become intimate and even marry, there is a constant sense that she is undermining him. As much as he cares, she doesn’t care at all. This becomes the thread that connects most Dietrich performances, a staged apathy and a sensual ennui.
The Blue Angel is one of Sternberg’s first efforts in sound and remains somewhat rickety as a result. The visual adjustments necessary to account for sound equipment somewhat flatten the images he became so famous for, but his sense of atmosphere remains strong. More so than many of his peers as well, he uses sounds expressionistically. Doors open to allow the chaos of the cabaret flood space, but the door shuts, closing off that audio stream. It is unrealistic but effective in translating the deep allure of Lola Lola, whose power of attraction makes Professor Rath blind and deaf to everyone but her. It’s as if she could stop time and the world from spinning, just through a glance or a short laugh.
While just shy of ninety years old, The Blue Angel remains a strong portrait of self-destruction. The environment might be obscure, but the portrayal of masochism remains strangely poignant. At the heart of Professor Rath’s impulse towards annihilation is Marlene Dietrich. The role established her in the eyes of audiences and Paramount as a legendary femme fatale and her career swiftly took off and she would become one of Hollywood’s greatest icons.