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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