It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The Blue Angel" will always have a place in film history as the movie that brought Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. At the time it was made, at the birth of the sound era in 1929, it was seen as a vehicle for Emil Jannings, the German actor who had just won the first Academy Award for best actor (for both "The Last Command" and "The Way of All Flesh") after starring in such silent landmarks as "The Last Laugh" and "Faust." Dietrich's overnight stardom inspired distributors to recut the film, ending it with one of her songs instead of his pathetic closing moments, and this restored version shows the entire film for the first time in years.
Even then there is a choice to be made. Jannings and his director, Josef von Sternberg, had established themselves in the silent era, when films knew no language barriers, and they shot the film in both English and German. This is the English version, with Dietrich and Jannings fluent (the Austrian Jannings claimed, falsely, that he had been born in Brooklyn), but many prefer the German version because the actors feel more at home with the dialogue.
Whatever its language, "The Blue Angel" looks and feels more like a silent film, with its broad performances that underline emotions. Von Sternberg, who was raised in Europe and America and began his career in Hollywood, was much influenced by German expressionism, as we see in early street scenes where the buildings tilt toward each other at crazy angles reminiscent of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." He was a bold visual artist who liked shots where the actors shared space with foreground props and dramatic shadows, and he makes the dressing room beneath the stage of the Blue Angel nightclub into a haunting psychic dungeon. Lotte Eisner observes in The Haunted Screen, her study of German expressionism, that von Sternberg was more at ease with sound than many of his contemporaries (this was his second talkie), and was perhaps the first director to deal with how offstage sounds alter as doors are opened and closed. Sound itself was seen as self-sufficient in the earlier days, but von Sternberg was already modulating it, tilting it toward realism.
His story involves the fall and humiliation of Prof. Immanuel Rath (Jannings), a respected high school professor who one day confiscates a postcard showing Lola Lola (Dietrich), the dancer at a local nightclub. Visiting the club to reprimand any students he might find there, the professor falls under the spell of Dietrich, who looks fleshier and more carnal than she later appeared. Soon he is lost. He marries her (in a show-biz wedding of grotesque toasts and whispered gossip), goes on the road, and returns to his hometown some years later as a bit player in her stage show--the stooge of a magician who produces eggs from the professor's nose and cracks them on the old man's head.