The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel (German: Der blaue Engel) is a 1930 German tragicomedic film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich and Kurt Gerron. Written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann – with uncredited contributions by Sternberg – it is based on Heinrich Mann's 1905 novel Professor Unrat (Professor Garbage) and set in Weimar Germany. The Blue Angel presents the tragic transformation of a respectable professor to a cabaret clown and his descent into madness. The film is the first feature-length German full-talkie and brought Dietrich international fame.[2] In addition, it introduced her signature song, Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Liebmann's "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)". It is considered to be a classic of German cinema.

The Blue Angel
German program cover (1930)
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Produced byErich Pommer
Written by
Based onProfessor Unrat
by Heinrich Mann
Music by
CinematographyGünther Rittau
Edited by
  • Walter Klee
  • Sam Winston
Distributed by
Release date
  • 1 April 1930 (1930-04-01) (Germany)[1]
  • 5 December 1930 (1930-12-05) (United States)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryGermany (Weimar Republic)
  • German
  • English
Box office$77,982 (2001 re-release)[1]

The film was shot simultaneously in German- and English-language versions, although the latter version was thought lost for many years. The German version is considered to be "obviously superior";[3] it is longer and not marred by actors struggling with their English pronunciation.[4]


Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is an educator at the local Gymnasium (high school for students expected to go to university) in Weimar Germany. The boys disrespect him and play pranks on him. Rath punishes several of his students for circulating photographs of the beautiful Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the headliner for the local cabaret, "The Blue Angel". Hoping to catch the boys at the club, Rath goes there later that evening. He does find some students there, but while chasing them, he also finds Lola backstage and sees her partially disrobing. When he returns to the cabaret the following evening to return a pair of panties that were smuggled into his coat by one of his students, he ends up staying the night with her. The next morning, reeling from his night of passion, Rath arrives late to school to find his classroom in chaos; the principal is furious and threatens to fire Rath.

Rath gives up his position at the school to marry Lola. Their happiness is short-lived, however, as Rath becomes humiliatingly dependent on Lola. Over several years, he sinks lower and lower, first selling dirty postcards, and then becoming a clown in Lola's troupe to pay the bills. His growing insecurities about Lola's profession as a "shared woman" eventually consume him with lust and jealousy.

The troupe returns to his hometown and The Blue Angel, where everyone turns out to see the professor they knew play a clown. Once onstage, Rath is humiliated, not only by a magician who breaks eggs on his head but also by seeing Lola embrace and kiss the strongman Mazeppa. He is enraged to the point of insanity. He attempts to strangle Lola, but the strongman and others subdue him and lock him in a straitjacket.

Later that night, Rath is released. He leaves and goes to his old classroom. Rejected, humiliated, and destitute, he dies clutching the desk at which he once taught.




By 1929, Sternberg had completed a number of films for Paramount, none of which were box office successes. Fortunately for Sternberg, Paramount's sister studio in Germany, UFA, offered him the opportunity to direct Emil Jannings in his first sound film. Jannings was the Oscar-winning star of Sternberg's 1928 movie The Last Command, and had specially requested Sternberg's participation, despite an "early clash of temperaments" on the set.[8][9][10]

Though The Blue Angel and Morocco, both from 1930, are often cited as his first sound films, Sternberg had already directed "a startling experiment" in asynchronous sound techniques with his 1929 Thunderbolt.[11]

Casting Lola Lola

Singer Lucie Mannheim was favored by UFA producer Erich Pommer for the part of Lola, with support from leading man Emil Jannings, but Sternberg vetoed her as insufficiently glamorous for a major production. Sternberg also turned down author Mann's actress-girlfriend Trude Hesterberg. Brigitte Helm, seriously considered by Sternberg, was not available for the part. Sternberg and Pommer settled on stage and film actress Käthe Haack for the amount of 25,000 Deutschmarks. [12]

Biographer Herman G. Weinberg, citing Sternberg's memoirs (1966) reports that the director had his first look at the 29-year-old Marie Magdalene "Marlene" Dietrich at a music revue named the Zwei Krawatten (Two Neckties), produced by dramatist Georg Kaiser. Film historian John Baxter corrects this account, acknowledging that Sternberg attended the show, but only after he had selected Dietrich for the role of Lola-Lola. Baxter cites John Kahan's version of the events surrounding Sternberg's "discovery":

One day, Liebmann, Pommer and myself were discussing certain things, when suddenly from the Reception a man came in and said, 'There is a young lady. She has a letter from Dr. Vollmoeller for Mr. Pommer.' Vollmoeller [a wealthy textile manufacturer] had given Marlene a letter of introduction asking Pommer to give her some small part in the picture. And when Marlene entered the door, Sternberg jumped up and said "Erich, this is Lola!' He smelt it, instinctively; this was how his mind worked. And Pommer said, 'But Jo, what about the contract with Käthe Haack? She could sue' 'Talk to her, pay her off' Sternberg said. 'It will pay back.' So Pommer rang Käthe Haack, who was a very nice, decent girl. She didn't sue; she resigned and accepted her fee.[13]

John Kahan described Dietrich as "a second-rate actress" before Sternberg's intervention, and Baxter comments on "the awkward shape of her nose [making it necessary to conceal with special lighting] and her stage presence...'bovine and charmless.'".[14]

Sternberg began immediately to groom her into "the woman he saw she could become" despite her defects. The Blue Angel, largely a musical, required that Dietrich, who had "no singing voice at all" learn to vocalize and a coach was hired. She would learn her lines for the English version by recitation.[15]

Critic Andrew Sarris remarks on the irony of this singular director-actress relationship: "Josef von Sternberg is too often subordinated to the mystique of Marlene Dietrich...the Svengali-Trilby publicity that enshrouded The Blue Angel – and the other six Sternberg-Dietrich film collaborations – obscured the more meaningful merits not only of these particular works but of Sternberg's career as a whole." [16]


After arriving at Berlin's UFA studios, Sternberg declined an offer to direct a film about Rasputin, the former Russian spiritual advisor to the family of Czar Nicholas II. He was intrigued, however, by a story from socialist reformer Heinrich Mann entitled Professor Unrat (Professor Filth) (1905), which critiques "the false morality and corrupt values of the German middle class" and agreed to adapt it.[17][18]

The narrative of Mann's story was largely abandoned by Sternberg (with the author's consent), retaining only scenes describing an affair between a college professor of high rectitude who becomes infatuated with a promiscuous cabaret singer. During the filming, Sternberg altered dialog, added scenes and modified cast characterizations that "gave the script an entirely new dimension." [19] [20] The Professor's descent from sexual infatuation to jealous rage and insanity was entirely the director's invention.[21][22]

In order to maximize the film's profitability, The Blue Angel was filmed in both German and English, each shot in tandem for efficiency. The shooting spanned 11-weeks, from Novernber 4, 1929 to January 22, 1930 at an estimated budget of $500,000, remarkably high for a UFA production of that period.[23][24][25]

During filming, although he was still the nominal star of the film (with top billing), Jannings could see the growing closeness between Sternberg and Dietrich and the care the director took in presenting her, and the actor became jealous, engaging in histrionics and threatening to quit the production. The Blue Angel was to be his last great cinematic moment; it was also one of UFA's last great films.[26] [27] Film historian Andrew Sarris comments on this double irony:

"The ultimately tragic irony of The Blue Angel is double-edged in a way Sternberg could not have anticipated when he undertook the project. The rise of Lola Lola and fall of Professor Immanuel Rath in reel [sic] life is paralleled in the real life by the rise of Marlene Dietrich and the fall of Emil Jannings..."[28][29]


The Blue Angel was scheduled for its Berlin premiere on April 1, 1930, but UFA owner and industrialist Alfred Hugenberg, unhappy with socialist Heinrich Mann's association with the production, blocked release. Production manager Pommer defended the film, and Mann issued a statement distancing his scurrilous anti-bourgeois critique from Sternberg's more humane portrayal of the Professor Immanuel Rath in his movie version.[30]. Sternberg, who declared himself apolitical, had departed the country in February, shortly after the film was completed and the internecine conflict emerged. Hugenberg ultimately relented on the grounds of financial expediency, still convinced that Sternberg had concealed within The Blue Angel "a parody of the German bourgeoisie."[31][32]

The film proved to be "an instant international success."[33][34] Dietrich, at Sternberg's insistence, was brought to Hollywood under contract to Paramount, where they would film and release the movie Morocco in 1930 before The Blue Angel would appear in American theatres in 1931.[35]

Themes and analysis

"We probably all were victims of an illusion [as to the character of Dietrich's Lola Lola]…the Marlene we rediscover is candor personified; a good-hearted little trouper, a bit overly romantic, perhaps, flattered by the attention of a pedant old enough to be her papa, dragging him along for four years like a ball and chain…Not a trace of malice. She prefers this clod to her gilded coxcombs. Of course she ends up cuckolding him, but almost against her own will. The idiot dies from it. Good riddance!"

— Film critic Michael Aubriant in
France-Soir/Paris-Presse (January, 1966) [36]

The Blue Angel, ostensibly a story of the downfall of a respectable middle-age academic at the hands of a pretty young cabaret singer, is Sternberg's "most brutal and least humorous" film of his œuvre.[37][38] The harshness of the narrative "transcends the trivial genre of bourgeois male corrupted by bohemian female" and the complexity of Sternberg's character development rejects "the old stereotype of the seductress" who ruthlessly cuckolds her men.[39]

Film historian Andrew Sarris outlines Sternberg's "complex interplay" between Lola and the Professor:

"The Blue Angel achieved its most electrifying effects through careful grading and construction. When Dietrich sings "Falling in Love Again" for the first time, the delivery is playful, flirtatious, and self-consciously seductive. The final rendition is harsher, colder, and remorseless. The difference in delivery is not related to the old sterotype of the seductress finally showing her true colors, but rather to a psychological development in Dietrich's Lola from mere sensual passivity to a more forceful fatalism about the nature of her desires. Lola's first instinct is to accept the Professor's paternal protection and her last is to affirm her natural instincts, not as coquettish expedients but as the very terms by which she expresses her existence. Thus, as the Professor has been defeated by Lola's beauty, Lola has been ennobled by the Professor's jealousy..."[40]

Biographer John Baxter echoes this the key thematic sequence that reveals "the tragic dignity" of Rath's downfall:

"[T]he tragedy of Immanuel Rath was not that he lost his head over a woman, but that he could not reconcile the loss of power with the acquisition of freedom." When Rath is forced to relinquish "his authority [over] his students, he sinks into alienated apathy…Rath's failure to grasp the chance opened to him…is portrayed in terms of his increasing silence, as he sinks more and more sullenly into the guise of the ridiculous, ironically named clown…In the end, the authoritarian master of language is bereft of articulate speech", finally erupting into a "paraoxysmic cockscrow" when he discovers that he has been cuckolded by Lola. [41]

When Emil Jannings, in a jealous rage, enters the room where his wife, Lola, is making love to the cabaret strongman, Mazeppa, Sternberg declines to show us Jannings – now a madman – at the moment he is violently subdued by the authorities and placed in a straightjacket. Sternberg rewards the degraded Professor Rath for having "achieved a moment of masculine beauty [by] crowing like a maddened rooster" at Lola's deception: "Sternberg will not cheapen that moment by degrading a man who has been defeated." Sternberg presents "the spectacle of a prudent, prudish man blocked off from all means of displaying his manhood except the most animalistic." The loss of Lola leaves the Professor with but one alternative: death.[42][43][44]

Parodies and adaptations

See also



  1. The Blue Angel (1930) on IMDb
  2. Bordwell, David; Kristin Thompson (2003) [1994]. "The Introduction of Sound". Film History: An Introduction (2nd ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-07-115141-2.
  3. Maltin, Leonard (ed.) Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide Plume, 2005. p.151. ISBN 0-452-28592-5
  4. Travers, James. "Der Blaue Engel (1930)" Films de France (2005)
  5. Baxter, 1971. p. 19: "... arrived at only after much experiment ..."
  6. Sarris, 1966. p. 28
  7. "Music" on
  8. Sarris, 1966. P. 25
  9. Baxter, 1971. P. 63
  10. Weinberg, 1967. P. 48
  11. Sarris, 1998. P. 217-218
  12. Baxter, 1971. p. 66
  13. Baxter, 1971, p. 66-67
  14. Baxter, 1971. P. 67
  15. Baxter, 1971. P. 67-68
  16. Sarris, 1998. P. 210
  17. Weinberg, 1967. P. 48
  18. Baxter, 1971. P. 63, p. 66
  19. Baxter, 1971. P. 72
  20. Weinberg, 1967. P. 50
  21. Sarris, 1966. P. 25
  22. Weinberg, 1967. P.50
  23. Weinberg, 1967. P. 51
  24. Baxter, 1971. P. 63, 67 p. 74-75
  25. Sarris, 1966. p. 25:"The film was produced simultaneously in German and English language versions for the maximum benefit of the Paramount-Ufa combine in world [movie distribution] markets."
  26. Baxter, 1971. P. 74: The production "was complicated [by the Sternberg/Dietrich] romance...Jannings, as expected, had reacted with special bitterness to the affair, working actively to break down their rapport, throwing tantrums and threatening to walk out."
  27. Baxter, 1971. P. 63, p. 74-75: The Blue Angel "had no successors at UFA"
  28. Sarris, 1966. P. 25
  29. Sarris, 1998. p. 220
  30. Weinberg, 1967. P. 53-54
  31. Baxter, 1971. P. 74-75
  32. Weinberg, 1967. P. 54: "Hugenberg [a political reactionary] had sensed that, within the framework of an entertainment film, Sternberg had subtly mirrored the paranoiac tendencies of the Prussian bourgeoisie."
  33. Baxter, 1971. p. 75
  34. Weinberg, 1967. p. 54
  35. Sarris, 1998. p. 219
  36. Weinberg, 1967. p. 222
  37. Sarris, 1998. P. 219-220
  38. Sarris, 1998. P. 121: "The Blue Angel (1930) [depicts] the downfall of a middle-aged bourgeois male through the machinations of a disreputable demi-mondaine..."
  39. Sarris, 1998. P. 220-221
  40. Sarris, 1998. p. 220-221
  41. Baxter, 1993. P. 124
  42. Sarris, 1966. p. 25
  43. Sarris, 1998. p. 221: "Sternberg's measured less by the breadth of this vision than by the perfection of his form and by the emotional force of his characters within that form."
  44. Sarris, 1998. P. 221:" is Lola's strength that she has lived with shabbiness long enough to know how to bend without breaking and the Professor's tragic misfortune to bend to first and still break after all."
  45. "The German Connection". Indian Express. Jan 15, 2006. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  46. Simonson, Robert. Scottsboro Librettist David Thompson Working on New Musicals With Stew, Scott Ellis Archived 2012-10-18 at the Wayback Machine. Playbill, April 1, 2010.


  • Black, Gregory D. (1994). Hollywood censored : morality codes, Catholics, and the movies (Transferred to digital print. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0521452996.
  • Baxter, John, 1971. The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg. London: A. Zwemmer / New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.
  • Sarris, Andrew, 1966. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. New York: Doubleday
  • Sarris, Andrew. 1998. "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet." The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927–1949. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513426-5
  • Weinberg, Herman G., 1967. Josef von Sternberg. A Critical Study. New York: Dutton.
  • Wakeman, John. World Film Directors Vol. 1 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987)
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