It was the film that got her noticed by Hollywood: The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel), directed by the magnificent Josef von Sternberg in the most luminous of blacks and whites. Dietrich was already nearly 30 and absolutely dripping with sensuality; because she hadn’t yet been placed on the Hollywood starvation diet, she wasn’t so gaunt and languid; she exudes an athletic frankness that makes her more sexually appealing. As Lola-Lola, the cabaret’s star singer, she spends most of the film in teasing little outfits belting out tunes like “Falling in Love Again” — and she absolutely rips the heart of Prof. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) to shreds.

Let’s pause for a moment on Marlene Dietrich in half-dress (I mean, we’re only human, right?). Late ’20s and early ’30s movies loved to tease us with scantily-clad women — even an amateur film lover like me has seen Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Miriam Hopkins and other actresses stripping down to their unmentionables. There’s a knack to it. These actresses must do it as if getting quasi-naked is natural; but of course it’s not, particularly as the screen usually has at least one man looking on to be titillated on our behalf. It’s as if the actress is showing us, this is what it’s like to be a modern woman! Yet they somehow can’t do it without appearing coy, self-conscious.

Dietrich added something more: a slightly surly aggression. It’s gorgeous.

There was something more, too. She never seems to demand your attention — she almost seems to disdain your attention — but she gets it all the more. Just watch this 1930 screen test she did for von Sternberg, in which she goes between playing up the ingénue and spitting out stray bits from her hand-rolled cigarette, which she smokes in a somewhat masculine way. I couldn’t help but think of the glorious bisexual world she inhabited in 1920s Berlin and Vienna, which suited her sexual preferences and permitted her to wear the men’s clothes she wore so beautifully (and became so famous for in 1930’s Morocco, in which she kisses a woman on the lips). She’s all about gender play.
That’s not to say she was limited onscreen. One of my favorite scenes in The Blue Angel shows her playing a new bride with a freshness and wit — yet also with love in her eyes that can’t be hidden. She has just married poor Prof. Rath and they’re having supper with her motley cabaret crew. Suddenly she begins to cluck at Rath — literally make little hen noises as she gives him a loving/naughty look, and even poke him a bit with her nose. Yet she does it so gently that it’s as if she knows he may not join in, or become embarrassed. Slowly, Rath starts to crow like a rooster, displaying the same pride and self-satisfaction as he develops a more full-throated cock-a-doodle doo. This might be one of the most delightful mini-moments onscreen I’ve ever seen.

Rath is so, so happy at that moment. It might be the first — and last — time he’s happy. Before he meets Lola, he’s simply a foggy, absent-minded professor type whose gymnasium (i.e., college prep) students just do what they will. After he meets her, he can hardly exist without her. Their marriage makes him a laughingstock. I’ll tell you what my big takeaway was: Professor Rath takes the cake as the most pathetic professor ever portrayed onscreen. And it’s worst of all when he’s recruited into the cabaret act as a clown.

Most of all, The Blue Angel pulls off an amazing trick — it takes an old chestnut of a mismatched love story and follows it through, mainly within the walls of a fantastically low nightclub, yet Von Sternberg’s directing somehow makes it all fresh. It also shows a fascinating side of Berlin in 1930 — the prevalence of Semitic-looking characters, club denizens of African descent, the odd array of freakish cabaret singers and actors, the fabulous sets and twisting, exotic street scenes. It almost makes you want to cry for what was lost throughout the course of the ’30s and ’40s with the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. I’m so glad Dietrich made it to Hollywood so early. But her life (as well as her body) was altered in the process. This film feels like a glimpse of what might have been if history had gone a different way. 

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It would be easy enough to say that the biggest difference between silent films and the “talkies” of the 30s is subject matter.  “Pandora’s Box,” after all, offers us the transcendent 22-year-old Louise Brooks as a happy-go-lucky dancer, Lulu, in a series of plot twists that give you whiplash:  her fortunes take a turn for the worse when she marries a wealthy doctor, snatching him away from another woman; the film then threatens her with both sexual slavery and Jack the Ripper.  Good thing she’s protected by a lesbian, an acrobat, and a drunken dwarf!  With that kind of plot, the Hays Code would have squelched it by about 1933 or so (Hitler later banned it as “degenerate art,” and he wasn’t the only one; it was also banned in Finland, Portugal, and Norway).

It’s not that the plot is irrelevant.  In fact, it was based on turn-of-the-century plays by Frank Wedekind (who also authored the play “Spring Awakening” in 1891, which Duncan Sheik turned into a Broadway musical over a hundred years later) designed to criticize contemporary perspectives on sexuality and morality.  But when watching the changeable Louise Brooks one tends to lose track of a coherent message.  One minute, she’s smiling at us adorably and cocking her tiny eyebrows at us to accentuate her enormous black eyes; the next she’s stealing someone’s fiancé and giving the jilted woman a look of utter malice.  She moves lightly on her feet like the dancer she was, yet overall her body appears unusually strong for the day, like her long, strong neck.  More than any other silent film actor, it is Brooks who has given me a whole new perspective on the Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) character from “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).  “We didn’t need dialogue.  We had faces then,” she pronounces to the cynical Joe Gillis (William Holden).  Swanson overdid it a bit to help us identify with Gillis, but now I know she was right.

The director G. W. Pabst (who shot Brooks in “Diary of a Lost Girl” the following year) was so certain that she was right for the part that he turned down Marlene Dietrich at the very last moment on learning that Brooks had agreed to star.  And after seeing Brooks on the big screen no one can doubt that the camera falls in love with her.  Pabst constantly sought innovative ways of using that luminescent quality of silent film, in which the whites seem almost to sparkle in 3-D, to enhance the mood and show again and again her beauty.  In fact, Brooks seems to have been special-ordered to personify the fantasy of female sexual vulnerability.  This fantasy is pernicious enough on its own, of course, but it seems tragic to me that so many of her fans (and perhaps even Brooks herself) came to draw an overly tidy equivalence between the character of Lulu and Louise herself, who called her 1982 book of essays Lulu in Hollywood.  The headline might be, LULU SETS BACK FEMINISM BY DECADES.

I could go on about the details.  The prevalence of the menorah in her apartment at the beginning of the film (is Pabst trying to signal that she’s Jewish?) contrasted with the heavy Christmas morality at the end.  The breakneck pace of the scenes backstage at Lulu’s theater as she changes costume and watches the beautiful black dancers onstage — the movement of the props and people is so tight it could be a Buster Keaton comedy in which someone is always about to have a house crash on him.  The close-close-closeups contrasting hard men’s faces with Lulu’s.  But instead, let’s engage in a little double nostalgia for both Louise and the 1980s band OMD (who clearly believed that one can never, never! over-use a synthesizer):

A final quick note:  for those of us convinced of the inequity of the filmgoing experience between places like LA and the rest of the universe, I have to confirm that it’s true.  Nothing is better proof of that fact than the existence of the Silent Film Theater in West Hollywood, where they showed “Pandora’s Box” last night with a live performance by the Cabeza de Vaca Arkestra, which performed their original score to the film — a moody, evocative soundtrack that contrasted so sharply with Brooks’ wide smile but foreshadowed the dark turns of plot.  (The Silent Film Theater even offers comfy SOFAS.)  As if I weren’t already jealous of the fact that old movies are shown outside on the grounds of the Hollywood cemetery on beautiful evenings.

I’m not going to recommend that anyone hunt down “Diary of a Lost Girl” (“Tagebuch einer Verlorenen”), the 1929 German silent shot by G. W. Pabst.  It’s preposterous soap — an innocent middle-class girl is raped by her father’s employee, bears a child and is kicked out of the house, enters a reformatory headed by a sadistic nun and a Lurch-like assistant who specializes in grabbing the lost girls by their necks.  She becomes a prostitute, marries a count, inherits all her father’s money after all, gives it all away to her evil stepmother … and so on; it’s like “The Perils of Pauline,” except she gets to have a teeny bit of agency in the end.  (The film is, however, available on YouTube for those of us cut off from Netflix.)  But it has Louise Brooks in it.  After stumbling across a library book full of beautiful stills of her, I knew I had to finally see one of her films.

The hair was absolutely brilliant — but everyone talks about that, so let’s focus on her eyes.  No one could use that scowl — a scowl that just hinted at a cry for help — better than Brooks.  She used heavy eyeliner to make them appear even bigger and wider than they already were; no wonder Liza Minnelli lifted a bit of this look for “Cabaret” in the 70s.  Unlike Minnelli, Brooks liked to hide her smile from us most of the time (“Diary of a Lost Girl” doesn’t give her much happiness), but when she did flash it, you see the most beautiful white, straight teeth and wide smile, none of which could be expected in the 20s, even for Hollywood.  I’m not sure whether her eyebrows were really so straight and far apart or if she plucked them to enhance her slightly helpless little-girl visage; either way, they were effective.  The fact that she keeps her smile from us so frequently makes us want her more.

She also had a knack for underplaying her roles, making her stand in sharp contrast to the other screen vamps of the 20s so effectively satirized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  (“I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”)  That naturalism suited Pabst, who was part of the New Objectivity movement to alert the public to the social ills surrounding them.  But while it’s hard to take seriously Pabst’s silly script at this remove, what does come through is that Brooks was working against his social consciousness when she displayed her gradual descent into sexual excess.  The campy melodrama actually seems to enhance our enjoyment of her sexual appeal, none of which she hid.  She held nothing back when she danced; she let her male escort know perfectly well she might be available for something more.  In fact, she apparently cultivated a reputation for a stunningly open sexuality, having numerous affairs with both men and women throughout her life.

She was in Germany because she also had a tendency to burn all her bridges.  Affairs, marriages, and film contracts invariably ended when Brooks ran out on them.  But you can see why they chased her.  Even now, there’s a Louise Brooks Society that keeps a terrific blog and posts surprisingly regular updates about screenings, memorabilia for sale, and other background info about her.    

One of the best scenes in “Diary of a Lost Girl” comes in the middle of the film, when she’s taken in by a kindly madam and her houseful of prostitutes.  Here they dress her in a beautiful new dress; later, in equally hypnotic images, she dances with men and drinks a little too much champagne.  This is a small clip from it.  In the meantime, I’ll recommend that all of you with proper movie rental capability get the Pabst-made classic, “Pandora’s Box” — clips from that film show many more of the same kinds of scenes of her dancing, reclining on fainting sofas, wearing revealing dresses, and seducing the hell out of all of us.