The film that gave us Marlene! Germany’s first feature-length talkie and the first collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930) should also get credit as one of German cinema’s darkest masterpieces.
Written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmoller and Robert Liebmann and based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat, The Blue Angel tells the story of Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) who, after discovering that his students are passing around photos of a cabaret singer, goes to The Blue Angel nightclub hoping to catch them, but instead falls for Lola Lola, the role that made Marlene Dietrich a household name – the English language version of ‘Ich bin von Kopf bis Fub auf Liebe eingestellt’, Falling in Love Again, became her signature tune.
An early example of German expressionism, The Blue Angel is as bleak as they come. Set in a quiet, albeit adorable little town, it is a tragic tale of human desire followed by an inescapable descent into madness. This isn’t the only film to address this trope – Scarlet Street (1945), directed by another German cinema great, Fritz Lang, comes to mind – but it is perhaps one of the most striking: Professor Rath is a simple man. He enjoys the simple things in life but is hopelessly lonely. Until Lola Lola comes along. He falls in love with her (who wouldn’t!), they get married and, over the years, he becomes more and more dependent on her while deeply regretting everything that has happened… It’s hard to watch, maybe because it all feels like such an unjust punishment, but it’s so beautifully done. That stark German realism does wonders here and, by the end of it, your heart breaks for Professor Rath… A sad tale, indeed.