Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is at first glance a playful farce, taking a rigid, repressed, and respected professor (Emil Jannings), and dooming him to fall in love with a young, flirtatious cabaret dancer (Marlene Dietrich) at a burlesque house called The Blue Angel. Its first two acts alone are a travelogue of visual and auditory wonders, one the spatially fragmented club full of spiral stairways, trapdoors and a goldmine of exotic props and trinkets, and another the complete dissipation of sound upon the closing of doors or the shutting of windows. Yet it is also tragic, and one biting shot, one of the few in which Sternberg moves the camera, beholds the professor alone in his cavernous classroom after having been reported for his engagement to Lola. Hopes for a more dramatically involving movie would appear to be dashed with what ensues: a quick proposal and happy marriage that ostensibly reeks of love-conquers-all. But the professor’s spiral from college instructor to traveling showman, while ever hilarious, eventually erupts in a brutal sequence of events that involves the motif of the tragic clown and the revelation of his wife’s philandering, all of which return the wounded man back to his classroom in a shot that mirrors the earlier emotional cliffhanger, this time with a lyrical beauty that fully employs Sternberg’s reputable talent for gorgeous low-key lighting. What a wonderful film.

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