It's been almost 30 years since I last saw Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel (1930). Based on Heinrich Mann's novel, Professor Unrat, At the time it was all about Marlene Dietrich--famous as the film's Lola, singing "Falling in Love Again" with that husky contralto. Lola is beautiful, marmoreal and heartless, and the only thing more foolish than falling for her would be...well, not falling.
Enter Emil Jannings as Professor Unrat, a middle-aged, dumpy lecturer at the local university (I know, the possibilities for my identification with the character seem endless, right?). His surname is actually 'Rath', but he is called 'Unrat' (German for 'filth' or 'garbage') by his students, who range between deferential (standing when he enters the classroom--something I'd never expect) and shouting names at him in public (something that hasn't happened to me...yet). The film is his story--his enamored, obsessive pursuit of the lovely and much younger Lola, which ends up in his humiliation and death. The film, or so I have read, speaks to the Weimar Republic's contempt for its intellectual class, but of course the professor is the embodiment of the bourgeois intellectual, a figure adored by the complacent middle class of the times and held in contempt by the artists, the bohemians, and (in a strange wedding of hatreds) the rising far Right in Germany at the time.
In short, Professor Unrat gets what he deserves, though we are sorry he does. Through it all, I am struck by Emil Jannings, who made his name as a silent film star (The Last Laugh, Waxworks, Tartuffe, Faust), usually in a comic, fleshy, leering role--his generation's Sydney Greenstreet or Victor Buono, but with the chops to carry a lead actor's role. And here he is in the talkies, wandering streets in which Dr. Caligari meets Antoni Gaudi, speaking in a strange but fitting tenor voice, running the gamut of gesture and facial expression from endearing to ridiculous to the genuinely tragic. The Blue Angel is his film, and his performance is what I carried away--disturbing me, moving me, making me think of the passing years.