Obsession destroys - von Sternberg's style.

Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich in “Blue Angel”

How could I have missed this one in film school! “Blue Angel” is the first major German sound film and already a great one. Made in 1929, it still is fresh and powerful on a large screen. It is a solid storytelling, based on a novel by Heinrich Mann, directed by Joseph von Sternberg.

Sternberg was quite a character - always moving, never repeating himself, audacious, confrontational type. He did his own cinematography and editing. He added “von” (together with mustache, stern walking and intimidating speech pattern) to strengthen his image. Lars Trier repeated the “von” maneuver. It worked! (From now on, you know how to address me, don’t you?)

“Blue Angel” is perhaps about a furious power of obsession/love. Love as the force for itself and by itself with disregard to the outside world. Interestingly, von Sterberg in a different, political context said - “reality failed to interest me," and “I do not care about a story, all I care is about how it is photographed and presented.” We could reword “presented” as “performed by a storyteller.” Lola Lola, played by Dietrich, is also driven by the need to perform. The story and the storyteller say that true passions, obsessions, desires are oblivious to anything external. Be it love or art or a need to tell a story - the desire is always the goal for itself. In case of a story with emphasis on “to tell” not on a “story.” What happens to those driven by “a story” and not by “to tell”? I suspect they don’t make it. “How” is more important than “what.” That could be a Joseph von Sternberg’s directing lesson.

The film is also a book case scenario for a technique to show a psychological process. “Blue Angel” creates a field for the main character's psychology by selecting a dramatically different start and end points of his journey. Everything in between the point of departure (normal, safe life) and arrival (death due to obsession), is filled with stages in a journey to self-defeat. The narrative does not dwell on how the character changed from one stage to another. There is not much “psychological transitions” there. Von Sternberg shows subsequent stages “in jumps.” Thanks to that, our imagination is active.

Von Sternberg directs by paying attention, giving scenes time to develop, always being mindful of context. For example the Blue Angel back stage sequences are told with a wonderful devise - every time the door opens - the outside music and noise burst in. It creates a hypnotic and humorous rhythm.

The pacing looks surprisingly contemporary. A hefty dose of humor in the first part only sets up drama in the second. Aside from a bit of overacting from the professor (a leftover from a very recent silent films) no false notes are on the screen. And of course Dietrich is already almost a Goddess. Clean, steady compositions, sometimes baroque, often expressionistic focus the attention of the viewer.

An early quote “To be or not to be” - sets up the second theme: can we be different than who we already are? Does the film warn against leaving your post? Life is brutal. Everybody is out for themselves. People do not connect. Even if they do, as Lola have done with the professor (out of pity? calculation? fun?), they revert to their own obsessions. Everybody follows their own bliss. The strong ones manage it well. The weak ones are doomed. Hence the story of professor Immanuel. Is the name significant? When Germans make a story about an intellectual and name him Immanuel, can they not think of a certain philosopher?

Because of some emotional and visual commonalities, I suspect Bergman and Kurosawa studied this film carefully.

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