Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel)

a film by Josef Von Sternberg

A Commentary by Linda Merritt

The following is one of the papers I wrote for Film History class. It got an A+ from my teacher, but since he graded on a curve I'm not sure if it's really good or if I was the only one who took the class because I actually LIKE film history.

The Blue Angel is a film about a man who leaves his natural habitat for the love of a woman who is not of his class, into a chaotic world he does not understand. In abandoning the "pigeonhole" that society has placed him in to try to possess an indominable force of nature (Lola-Lola), he loses everything - Career, power, home, social standing, self-respect, and is finally destroyed by the choices he's made.

The opening shots of the film show the day arriving with the town clock striking the hour, several statues including death plodding along their clockwork path. The clock is referred to several times throughout the film as the start of Dr. Rath's morning rituals and as an unchanging landmark of his stale but secure existance. A maid washing windows admires the new poster advertising Lola-Lola's cabaret act, and strikes the same pose.

In the opening scene, Dr. Rath meticulously begins his breakfast, but his morning routine is disrupted when he discovers that his pet bird is dead. He is hurt and bewildered. In his well-ordered life, this was something he had not planned on. His housekeeper unemotionally sums up the situation, saying only "It didn't sing anymore, anyway." and callously throwing the tiny body into the stove. The bird motif is repeated throughout the film, from the singing birds caged in Lola's room to the feathers pasted on the postcard of her and the tacky ceramic birds hanging by wires on the cabaret stage. Professor Rath's ascetic life is sterile, schematic, so crammed with routine that it lacks the breath of life: like his caged bird, he is dead. (1) In class he is just as orderly, and in sole dictatorship. Putting one mark in his little black book reduces his prize student to a nervous wreck. The students are loud and disruptive before class, but the classroom becomes deathly quiet when he arrives, all his students in neat regimented rows, standing at attention showing respect for his position, when they have nothing but contempt for him behind his back. They pull pranks and bully his prize student unmercifully when he isn't looking, but they are all affected innocence when he is watching. As in the German society of the times, respectable behavior was not expected, only the appearance of it. Sound is used very effectively in these scenes. As he opens and shuts the window, it is his actions that control the sounds of the choir singing outside, as if he alone has control of what from the outside world is or isn't allowed to broach the sanctity of his classroom. But his control is disrupted by students sneaking looks at naughty postcards of Lola. The immediate disruption of his class is ended when he takes the cards away from them, but the disruption of his life caused by Lola begins here, long before he actually meets her.

When he follows his students to the cabaret, the stark lighting and leaning oppressive buildings reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari emphasize the unfamiliar world of chaos he is entering. Teachers in Germany are highly respected in society, and are expected to act with extreme decorum. The harbor area is a place where someone of his class should never go. The cabaret is in many ways the opposite of his classroom. It is dark and shabby. The chorus girls are chubby at best, and the costumes leave little unrevealed. The place is crowded, noisy, and half-hidden in a fog of cigarette smoke and low-key lighting. The cherubs, birds, and clouds are all cheap illusions pulled on wires.
The manager is a mediocre magician, with his own cheap illusions. But Dr. Rath, who knows nothing but a solitary and sheltered life is assaulted by the unfamiliar sights and sounds around him. Even the fish nets hanging from the walls of the cabaret try to entangle him. When he meets Lola he tells her that she is bewitching his students, but quickly becomes so bewitched and bemused himself that any sane judgment he ever may have had where she is concerned is completely lost. She flirts, cracks innuendoes, and even takes off her panties and drops them on his head, but when the sea captain propositions her it doesn't occur to him that this is not an isolated incident, and she has no honor left to protect. Even Lola herself is amazed and impressed that he would bother.
When she teasingly tells him he's not bad looking, he smiles and blushes like a schoolboy. His students are far better able to judge what kind of woman she is than he can. Later when he proposes to her, she laughs hysterically that anyone would want to marry her, or think she was capable of fidelity, let alone being a devoted wife. She even proclaims her character in the lyrics of her songs - "Men gather round me like moths around a flame, and if their wings burn, I know I'm not to blame", and "old men, young men, all fall into my net". As a metaphor of just how blinded he is by her beauty and forbidden sexuality, she blinds him by blowing her face powder into his face, transforming him from a "stuffed shirt" into a farcical sight, foreshadowing the clown he will soon become.
Later he is blinded again, by the harsh spotlight cast on him by the troupe manager, to show him off to his other customers. All though these scenes only the clowns do not participate; they are the impassive observers, silent and stone-faced, as if they have seen it all before. Far from providing comic relief, their depressing deadpan stares are a forboding hint of things to come.

(1) A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast & Bruce F. Kawin, 1971

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