Falling In Love Again: Marlene Dietrich and The Blue Angel

“Then Marlene Dietrich appeared. Klara released her grip, as if daring Rolf to move. Rolf couldn’t.” –Summer of Long Knives, page 113

The Blue Angel, based on a novel whose title translates more or less as Professor Garbage, was intended as a starring vehicle for Oscar-Winner (actually the first Oscar Winner) Emil Jannings. Jannings had made a good career for himself in silent pictures playing variations of aged sad sack characters. The Blue Angel was to offer Jannings in another, similar role, as a tight-assed middle aged teacher whose lust for a cabaret girl leads him on a downward spiral that ends with him as a performing clown.

But it is Marlene Dietrich who ends up walking away with the picture, in her role as Lola-Lola. Her acting style seems far less mannered and beholden to the legacy of silent pictures than Jannings’. He gesticulates and rages. Marlene dominates him, and the screen, with nothing more than a look, or a slight smile, or a drag on her cigarette. Her performance hints at what she’s thinking instead of indicating it. Her performance achieves sensuality without apparent effort, which is what makes the signature song of the movie, “Falling in Love Again”, feel like such an apt description of Lola-Lola’s character.

The end of the silent era ruined Emil Jannings’s Hollywood career–his thick accent made him hard for U.S. audiences to follow, a common fate among silent-era actors–but it started Marlene Dietrich’s. She and The Blue Angel‘s director moved to Hollywood, where Dietrich became a screen icon. Jannings’s and Dietrich’s political fates would diverge just as sharply. Jannings would go on to make propaganda pictures for the Third Reich, winning awards from Josef Goebbels for his performances. Dietrich opposed the Nazis and performed for U.S. soldiers during World War II.

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