The Blue Angel (1930) is a few famous “firsts.” The first collaboration between director Josef Von Sternberg and actress and Marlene Dietrich, Germany’s first major sound film (so much so that it was also shot in English), and many would note it as Von Sternberg’s first sound film (although that title belongs to Thunderbolt, released one year prior). But simply placing The Blue Angel in history is a lazy disservice to perhaps the first film to display masterful use of sound. For Von Sternberg, simply having sound was not enough. Much of the film takes place in the dressing room of Lola Lola (Dietrich), just one door and a curtain removed from the stage of the titular bar where she (and others) perform. When this door opens, the sound of performance fills the dressing room. It is not until the door is completely closed that the sound disappears, and it disappears all at once. If Von Sternberg were concerned with realism, the sound would likely be quieter with the door closed but not unheard. But instead, he creates a nightmarish reality and puts emphasis on the interaction between Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings, star of Murnau classics and the recipient of the first Best Actor Oscar) as if nothing else matters, only to occasionally remind us how quickly things can change and start anew, or perhaps a hint at important workings happening off-screen, as they often do. Von Sternberg glosses over a few plot points, letting us know it happens but shutting the door and refusing to explain it. Like the stop and start of the music, it shifts the atmosphere in an undeniably provocative yet very open-ended way.
Silence is very prominent in the film, far more likely an intentional contrast than discomfort with new technology (remember, this was the director’s second talkie). The silence broods beneath the surface, revealing Rath for the expressionist protagonist he is, prone to a descent into madness and obsession. This silence is especially prominent in outdoor scenes and long corridors, where the angular, inward pointed buildings and focus on shadows add to the eerie atmosphere by way of expressionism. Von Sternberg lets Expressionism creep into his other sets, too; the bar’s stage is often flooded with light, and the high contrast light on characters in the dressing room, ordained with a spiral staircase, seems influenced by the memorable set from Wegener’s Expressionist masterpiece The Golem (1920). Past Expressionist films have taught us that these aesthetics mean insanity, and when Rath dons his suitably creepy clown costume, we know exactly who our victim is.
Lola furthers the expressionist influences, a femme fatale with her own agenda who convinces our hero that she can be trusted. It’s the blueprint for the film-noir and a strong Expressionist female to stand beside Ellen Hutter of Nosferatu (1922) or Maria of Metropolis (1927), trailblazers of feminist film before there was such a thing. Dietrich is brilliant in this role, convincing us that she has a reason for marrying Rath when he proposes, and although this puts the film on auto-pilot to a predictable conclusion, it also makes her gradual reveal all the more intriguing.
The conclusion is a tad stuffy; Rath’s fall from grace is sped up to the point of bringing about an uneven tone, but enough motifs recur unexpectedly to revitalize interest and compel repeated viewings. Furthermore, Still, the last few shots of the film make such great use of silence and expressionism that none of that matters. Von Sternberg delivers here with a meaningful contrast between sound and silence, and he never forgets that the cinema’s greatest strength is in the power of its images.