Joseph von Sternberg’s “Der Blaue Engel” is generally acknowledged the first great German sound film, and no surprise then that it is remembered primarily as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, who sings up a storm of desire and despair. But while the film made Dietrich a star, the real genius of the film is Emil Jannings, as the bourgeois professor Rath who is seduced into Lola Lola’s lair at the cost of all his middle-class, fatuous respectability. And it is the music associated with Rath that makes this film impressive as an early (and amazingly confident) exploration of the power of sound in film.
Of course, Sternberg borrows heavily from precedents. Visually, the film is almost old-fashioned in its devotion to expressionist design. Its narrative is taken from Heinrich Mann, who in turn borrowed from a long line of stories about the downfall of respectable people. The tone of the film, the emotional extremity of Rath’s humiliation and jealousy, will seem operatic to most viewers, and recall very specific operas to opera lovers, especially “Pagliacci” (and the whole superheated, degenerate milieu of the verismo tradition).
The film’s score, and a musical clock which chimes the hours, associates a song, “Ub’ immer Treu und Redlichkeit,” based on a ballad by Ludwig Christoph Holty with the character of Professor Rath. Curiously, Siegfried Kracauer notes the song in his discussion of the film in “From Caligari to Hitler,” calling it “a popular German tune devote to the praise of loyalty and honesty–a tune expressive of Jannings’ inherited beliefs.”
But Kracauer fails to note the most important thing: That the song appears as Papageno’s “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The reference to Mozart’s famous bird catcher helps explain why the film opens with Rath calling to his bird, why birds flutter about as the musical clock intones the melody, and it gives extra force to the screenplay’s harrowing use of bird imagery–at his nadir, Rath appears on stage dressed as a clown, crowing like a cock.
“The Magic Flute” is, among other things, a tale of two marriages, a high-class marriage of a prince to a well-born young woman, and a lower-class marriage of Papageno to his perfect soul mate, Papagena. The bird catcher and his gal are mostly a comic foil to the tale of trial and tribulation faced by Tamino, the high-born hero. The reference to Mozart’s beloved comic character underscores what is often forgotten about “Der Blaue Engel”–its substantial comic element. Mozart adds irony.
It is a stunning film, so much more interesting and complex than the posters of Dietrich suggest. And it’s fascinating to see how much opera offered a template for thinking about music in this earliest of German talkie masterpieces.